Contempt trial turns into civil-liberty battleground

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CIVIL-LIBERTY campaigners will tomorrow make Scottish legal history by seeking to take part in the trial of a lawyer accused of contempt of court.

Lawyers for the human-rights group Liberty have been granted permission to appear at that start of the trial of Aamer Anwar, a lawyer who faces a fine, disciplinary action or even prison if found guilty of contempt. This follows comments he made after a man was convicted of terrorism charges in September.

Liberty will make a case before three judges that they should be allowed to speak in support of Anwar during the hearing. Such "third-party interventions" have previously taken place in cases of major public interest in England – but have never before been attempted in a Scottish court.

Michael Mansfield and Helena Kennedy are among a host of high-profile lawyers who have thrown their weight behind Anwar. They have both provided written submissions to the court in support of him.

However, the Law Society of Scotland, which both represents and regulates lawyers, has refused to publicly defend Anwar, saying only that it will study the outcome of the hearing "and make a decision on what action, if any, to take".

The contempt hearing at the High Court in Edinburgh tomorrow was instigated by Lord Carloway, the judge at the trial of Mohammed Atif Siddique, and is the first of its kind in the UK.

Anwar lodged an appeal two weeks ago on behalf of Siddique, claiming the conviction on charges concerning the collection and dissemination of terrorist literature on websites he ran was the product of an unfair trial.

Anwar is also appealing against the eight-year sentence imposed on Siddique.

The contempt trial centres on comments made by Anwar outside the High Court in Glasgow. He described the verdict "a tragedy for justice and for freedom of speech" and alleged that Siddique's prosecution was "driven by the state" in an "atmosphere of hostility" following the Glasgow airport attack. Lord Carloway described Anwar's remarks "an unjustified attack on almost every area of the trial process, other than the defence". He claimed that, rather than speaking for his client, Anwar's statements reflected his own "personal views" and "lacked any hint of objectivity".

But Siddique's family insist that Anwar's comments did reflect their views.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, said: "The ability of a lawyer to protest on behalf of his client is crucial to both free speech and justice in a democracy. This case provides a golden opportunity for Scotland to protect the independence of lawyers – even in difficult times."

More than 100 high-profile figures – including writer Iain Banks, anti-war campaigner Rose Gentle and Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six – have declared their support for Anwar.

They call the case as "an unprecedented attack on the principle of freedom of speech".

LAWYER WHO MAKES NEWS

AAMER Anwar's trial will be far from the first time he has made the headlines.

In 1995, he won damages from Strathclyde Police following Scotland's first civil action alleging a racist attack by police.

He was accosted by officers while flyposting in Glasgow's West End about a student demonstration, losing his front teeth in the incident.

"While I was screaming for help I was told this was what happens to black boys with big mouths," he said. He also represented the family of Surjit Singh Chhokar, a Sikh waiter murdered in 1998.

His campaign prompted two criminal inquiries.