Human rights on trial

Chris Fogarty and Richard Tyler look at the case of a British lawyer who is locked up in Portugal and another who is acting as a United Nations observer in Sierra Leone

Months locked in an overcrowded Portuguese prison cell have allowed Professor David Lowry plenty of time to reflect on the bitter irony of his situation.

The Canadian-qualified barrister, who has written about and championed human rights, now claims the Portuguese Government is trampling on his. He spent 12 months in jail before being charged and another six awaiting trial, in what his lawyers are branding a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lowry, an experienced law lecturer in the UK and the US, had been working for Paramount, a US-owned company that took advantage of Portugal's cheap telephone system to telemarket potentially high-return shares to international investors. Investors would have their share contracts registered in Paramount's head office in Switzerland.

But in April 1997, officials of Portugal's share authority, the CMVM, accompanied by police, raided Lowry's Portuguese office and arrested him. The 54-year-old, who has serious health problems, was put in a cell designed for only five men along with 13 convicted criminals, including four suffering from Aids.

After 364 days in prison he was finally charged with falsification of documents, fraud, criminal association and the unauthorised use of names of people to contact as potential customers. Lowry says the charges are “laughable” and “ludicrous”. “I'm battling against what I believe to be the last fascist criminal code of procedures in Europe,” he told The Lawyer.

According to consultant lawyer Gudrun Paraise, from European Legal Advice, who is representing Lowry along with Doughty Street barristers Edward Fitzgerald QC and Keir Starmer, Lowry's criminal trial will begin on 21 September. In the meantime, they have filed a suit in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg claiming that Portugal's actions against Lowry are in breach of several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Meanwhile, barrister Rory Field flew into a politically and emotionally charged Sierra Leone last month in a bid to ensure 95 people arrested for their part in a military coup got a fair trial. The Hardwicke Building barrister volunteered to go to the former British colony, which is on the brink of anarchy, to be a United Nations observer.

A wide range of people had been lumped together in the three civil cases and one military court martial – from former president Joseph Momoh to soldiers and civil servants, including many women. All faced the likelihood that they would be sentenced to death. Field's role was to encourage the trials to be as fair as possible. But he soon realised that the concept of documentation did not exist and that the jury would be subjected to reports on the merits of the cases by the country's nine newspapers.

“Also of concern was the fact that only 11 of the 38 defendants were legally represented and those 11 represented shared four lawyers,” says Field. “Those lawyers were also simultaneously acting in three treason trials.”

It proved difficult to balance the UN's resolutions on human rights with the population's hunger for revenge. But Field, who went to Sierra Leone under the auspices of the IBA, thinks he made a difference , with “most of my concerns being acknowledged and addressed by the judiciary and Attorney General”.


IBA Human Rights Institute – 0171 629 1206

Bar Council human rights committee – 0171395 9508

The Lawyers Network, Amnesty International, 0171 814 6200

Law Society of England and Wales – 0171 242 1222

The Solicitors Human Rights Group – Nicholas Steineke on 0171 916 3032