Barristers beholden to public prosecutors
Proposals for legal reform that would make public prosecutors all-powerful have angered barristers.
Algiers, 27/07/01 – « After journalists, the regime’s now sorting out barristers, » quipped Mahmoud Khellili, president of the National Lawyers Syndicate (SNA), summing up the concern felt by the legal profession at the reform proposals drafted by hardline justice minister, Ahmed Ouyahia.
Ouyahia’s proposals radically rewrite relatively liberal legislation dating back to 1991. Legal professionals see them as an assault on one of the final strongholds of democratic rights and the Barristers’ Union National Council rejected them out of hand when it met on July 24th and 25th.
Particularly worrying is that Ouyahia has laid out his plans in a document entitled « draft bill », despite his protestations that it is merely « a working document ».
As one barrister, Borghol Khaled, put it: the document reveals a strategy « that aims to muzzle defendants’ rights, whatever it’s called ».
Mahmoud Khellili, who represents the relatives of missing persons, was even blunter with his assertion that Ouyahia intends « to bring barristers directly under the control of the state prosecutor ».
Prosecution’s powers world first
Article 48 of the « working document » empowers public prosecutors to institute proceedings against barristers with the Disciplinary Council of the Order of Barristers.
Another clause compels the presidents of all Algeria’s 13 bars to inform the justice ministry, the offending barrister and the state prosecutor of all disciplinary councils’ decisions.
Should a prosecutor disapprove of a decision, he can, under article 54 of Ouyahia’s draft, appeal against it. It is a provision that runs counter to normal practice, as only the justice ministry and the offending barrister are usually entitled to appeal.
« It’s scandalous, unheard-of! A public prosecutor who can lodge a complaint with the barristers’ disciplinary council! It’s a world first, » said one barrister.
Khaled Bourayou, who specialises in cases involving the press railed against the very authoritarian clause 80, which does away with the obligatory presence of the president of a bar when police search a barrister’s office.
Another lawyer and former senator, Mokrane Ait Larbi, focused on the particularly dangerous article 87b, which prohibits barristers from « conferring with the aim of boycotting or withdrawing from a court hearing and so obstructing court proceedings ».
Ostensibly the article is designed « to protect defendant’s rights », but as Mokrane Ait Larbi commented bitingly in French-language daily, Liberté: « With so many magistrates struck off… the only protectors of defendants’ rights left are barristers ».
Hopes and fears
Moderate senator Reda Boudiaf, president of the national bar, has also voiced his opposition to any attempt to bring the lawyers under the control of the state prosecutor.
At the same time, he claims that the Ouyahia called his proposals a draft bill due to « a technical mistake » and appeals to the legal profession to suspend their harsh judgement.
He argues that the Ouyahia is seeking to « restore rigour to the profession » and in support quotes articles that introduce a competitive exam to law school and extend teaching and on-the-job training in court from nine months to three years.
But Reda Boudiaf, like many other members of the profession, hopes the government will eventually back down. He asserts that barristers will examine Ouyahia’s plans point by point and will keep what is good about them, with the proviso that « should [the draft bill] be forced on us, we’ll hit back ».ª
Mokrane Ait Larbi, too, believes the council of ministers will reject the bill, while others predict that prime minister Ali Benflis, architect of the current legislation when justice minister, will not dare disown his own law wholesale.
The SNA remains wary, though. Mahmoud Khellili openly admits to fearing that the proposals could become « a decree promulgated during the summer recess which would take immediate effect pending approval by Parliament when it resumes ».
He dryly adds that draft amendments to Algeria’s criminal code became law « in the teeth of protest from across society ».