One of the most important rights in a free society is the right to choose legal assistance. It is a right which is enshrined by Article 6(3)(c) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The resistance of the United States to the exercise of this right by those individuals detained in Guantanamo Bay is one of the darkest chapters in the War against Terror.
Almost as depressing is the routine attempts to rubbish lawyers who work on behalf of defendants charged with serious political offences. I was sickened by the attempt by the Pentagon’s Charles Stimson to encourage a boycott of Wall Street law firms which represented Guantanamo inmates: a nasty suggestion which, quite rightly, cost him his job.
Arani & Co., a London law firm which specialises in representing those accused of jihadist terror offences, has been a victim of a press hatchet job. The Daily Mail drew attention to the amount of money which the firm was paid in legal aid: a substantial sum which nevertheless will have been closely scrutinised by the Criminal Defence Service, and which no doubt reflected the enormous amount of work which lawyers must do in order to ensure parity of arms, when a defendant in a high profile trial is prosecuted.
These sorts of attacks are disgraceful. Criminal defence lawyers, of whom I know many, should not be attacked for representing unpopular clients. Even when firms specialise in representing defendants charged with offences committed for political reasons, lawyers typically conduct themselves according to the highest standards of their profession.
It is unfortunately that Arani & Co. has been in the news twice in the last year, in disturbing circumstances.
Last June, a lawyer at Arani & Co. was convicted of perverting the course of justice:
A solicitor has been convicted of smuggling a letter out of Belmarsh jail, which would have provided a gunman with a false alibi.
Maya Devani had visited her client, Timothy Merchant, who was being held on two charges of attempted murder.
But when she left the south-east London prison, she allegedly took written instructions for an alibi.
Days after his brother was sentenced to nine years for an armed raid at a convenience store, Merchant shot one of the witnesses as he sat in his car. His friend was also shot.
When Merchant, 29, from Chelsea, realised an important piece of evidence allegedly linking him to the attack was found in a car, he recruited his solicitor to help him.
Then, on Monday, a further allegation was made against the firm by Manfo Asiedu, the fourth 21/7 defendant:
The solicitor for three of the alleged 21 July suicide attack plotters sent £600 to a fourth accused who she did not represent, a court heard.
Mudassar Arani, from Arani and Co, sent money to Manfo Asiedu while he was in custody in Belmarsh Prison, Woolwich Crown Court was told.
It was alleged someone connected to Ms Arani tried to get Mr Asiedu to change his story to suit another defendant.
Mr Kamlish also presented a document to the court which he said showed changes made to Mr Asiedu’s defence statement to make Mr Ibrahim’s own case look better.
He said the paper could have been smuggled into the prison in legal documents “from outside”.
Referring to Ms Arani, he said: “Somebody connected to this solicitor has been trying to persuade my client to change his case to suit Ibrahim’s case.”
He also accused Mr Ibrahim of attempting to make sure Mr Asiedu “towed the false defence line”.
He said he had tried to get his co-defendants to switch legal representation to his solicitor to make sure they all told the same story.
“One by one you tried to persuade them to change their solicitor, didn’t you?” he said.
“Then three of them made applications to change from the firms they were then with in 2005 to your firm.”
Yassin Omar and Ramzi Mohammed changed firms to be represented by Arani and Co but Mr Asiedu’s application failed, the barrister said.”
Asiedu is running a “cut-throat” defence: that is, he is giving evidence which seeks to exculpate him from criminal responsibility, by implicating his co-defendants. Defendants in these circumstances do not always make the best witnesses of truth. Nevertheless, Asiedu’s counsel, Stephen Kamlish QC, at Michael Mansfield QC’s chambers, is well known as a fearless defence barrister. He doesn’t generally take hopeless points.
Either this allegation constitutes desperate flak thrown out by a defendant facing serious criminal charges, or there is substance in them. I expect that this matter will be investigated fully after the trial is concluded. I hope that this isn’t true.
If it turns out that Maya Devani’s conduct was not an isolated incident then significant damage will have been done to the reputations of all lawyers who represent defendants who are charged with political offences.