Bryce Edwards: Golriz Ghahraman on trial: guilty and not-guilty 

Bryce Edwards: Golriz Ghahraman on trial: guilty and not-guilty 

Over the last week, new Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has effectively been on trial for her past role as a lawyer in war crimes tribunals. Allegations and defences swirled around her in an emotionally charged and confusing manner. Now that the dust has settled, it helps to separate the controversy into the two main charges levelled against Ghahraman.

Allegation #1: Golriz Ghahraman was wrong to defend war criminals

The first charge against Golriz Ghahraman is simply that she has worked as a defence lawyer for individuals charged with war crimes, and that this is morally wrong. The controversy was originally raised after the Herald published the following story last weekend – see: Green MP Golriz Ghahraman on a life-changing year in Rwanda.

Political activist Phil Quin has worked in Rwanda, a country that was torn apart by a genocidal civil war, and he was Ghahraman’s most vehement critic. Quin argued the MP had shown “appalling judgment to spend months interning for mass killers” – see: Green MP Golriz Ghahraman pictured smiling in photograph alongside Rwandan convicted for inciting genocide. He suggests that the UN body responsible for setting up the trials was extremely well funded, and by volunteering (initially) for the defence, she was unnecessarily helping a war criminal escape justice.

Furthermore, Quin argues that the line of argument being used by Ghahraman’s defence team in Rwanda was morally repugnant, as it was “predicated on a revisionist account of what happened in 1994 — one that posits the victims as perpetrators — and it is incredible that someone as smart as Ghahraman didn’t know that going into the role.” Ghahraman’s decision to pose happily for photos with her client, Simon Bikindi, reflects poorly on her – see his article, The Green MP and the genocide hearings.

Legal academic Andrew Geddis defended Ghahraman, saying “Ghahraman played a necessary (if hard) role in an internationally established institution designed to resolve in an open and legitimate fashion individual guilt for horrible actions” – see: Did Golriz Ghahraman do anything wrong?

Geddis says “Defending nasty individuals is just a part of what international human rights lawyers do”, and he compares it to regular lawyers defending clients charged with more common crimes. See also, his article, Contra Quin: Ghahraman still did nothing wrong.

The MP also received the backing of the Law Society – see Emma Hurley’s New Zealand Law Society defends Golriz Ghahraman.

Ghahraman’s role defending war criminals was made worse in the eyes of many because she posed for photos with one of the defendants, Simon Bikindi. Newstalk ZB reported that “Ghahraman said she doesn’t regret posing for the camera with him” – see: Green MP unapologetic for posing with genocide accused. She is explained, “My commitment is to innocent until proven guilty. I guess I can see how people are jarred by the photo but to me it’s we are involved in a human process and you have to as a defence lawyer go, this is a human being.”

In yesterday’s Sunday Star Times, Stacey Kirk addresses the photograph, saying that “It’s the way they’re standing next to each other, faces beaming. He’s the celeb and she looks like she’s run into him at a restaurant and asked whether they can have a quick photo together. In the court of public opinion, particularly when you’re a politician, it’s perhaps not a crime but definitely more than a misdemeanour. Although one that should be seen in context, and then granted diversion” – see: The politics of perception and a cautionary internet tale.

For the most interesting defence of Ghahraman, see Damien Grant’s amusing column from yesterday, Why I admire Golriz Ghahraman. Grant argues we should be more concerned with the effectiveness of politicians than their morals. He therefore concludes his defence of her: “We vote for people because we want them to get things done. There isn’t any point in marrying a eunuch or voting for a saint.”

Allegation #2: Golriz Ghahraman and the Greens misrepresented her human rights activities

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of Ghahraman’s actions, a separate allegation is that she and her party were less than upfront about her past. Some suggest there were deliberate attempts by the MP and the Greens to play down her defence role and promote the idea that she was prosecuting war criminals instead.

One of the first people to question Ghahraman’s integrity was rightwing blogger David Farrar, who pointed to what he argued was misleading information on her Green Party website biography regarding her role in the war crimes trials. He also found other publications from the Greens which gave the impression Ghahraman was prosecuting, not defending, war criminals – see: Ghahraman defended not prosecuted the genociders in Rwanda.

Here’s Farrar’s main point: “The issue for me isn’t that she worked as a defence lawyer for war criminals, but that all the promotional material to date has given the impression she was prosecuting in Rwanda, not defending. Sure if you look all the way down the Linked In profile, you see the details. So it isn’t that she personally has made a false statement about her work. It is that the narrative built around her has been incomplete and misleading. The Guardian article is a great example of that – makes you think she was a prosecutor in Rwanda. The Greens website states her work in Africa was putting on trial world leaders – highly misleading. Her own maiden speech glosses over her work in Rwanda”.

In another post, Farrar envisages a parallel scenario in which a defence lawyer in a New Zealand case acts in an equally deceptive and trivial way about it all – see: The case for the prosecution and the defence.

There has been disagreement about the extent to which Ghahraman has downplayed her role defending war criminals. There are examples of her being very upfront about it all – and for the best coverage of this, see Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Five times Golriz Ghahraman was open about her defence work.

Furthermore, since the election, public law specialists Chen Palmer Partners have been interviewing politicians for the company’s “Who’s Who in Wellington” briefings on MPs. In the briefing for Ghahraman, Mai Chen, who undertook the interview, states clearly, that “Being from Iran and having prosecuted and defended war criminals overseas has really crystallised the importance of the Rule of Law for Golriz.”

Chen’s briefing on Ghahraman elaborates further: “She has lived and worked in Africa, the Hague and Cambodia for the United Nations. She was an assistant prosecutor in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia as part of the United Nations Assistance Mission to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal as well as a Legal Officer in the Defence Team at the United National International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Golriz also prosecuted war criminals from the former Yugoslavia at The Hague.”

But there are also many examples of her role being portrayed inaccurately. For example, later last week, it was revealed that Green Party co-leader James Shaw, who is a long-time friend of Ghahraman’s, gave a speech earlier in the year in which he claimed the following: “Having fled Iran in 1990 as a child, Golriz is now a human rights lawyer who worked as a prosecutor at the United Nations’ tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. She also worked on the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia” – see the Herald’s James Shaw takes rap for misrepresenting Golriz Ghahraman in speech.

Shaw has now apologised for this, and the Greens have taken action to try to correct stories that have been inaccurate about her past – see, for example, the Herald’s Profile on party website of MP who defended Butcher of Bosnia now changed to be more accurate, and Newshub’s Greens ask Guardian for Golriz Ghahraman correction after AM Show interview.

Duncan Garner of the AM Show interviewed Ghahraman about the controversy – you can watch this here: Greens MP Golriz Ghahraman defends Iraq war claims. Garner wasn’t convinced by her explanation – watch his discussion: Golriz Ghahraman’s explanation ‘not good enough’ – Duncan Garner.

He then followed up on Saturday with a more elaborate opinion piece on why he thought Ghahraman and the Greens had been less than forthcoming on her background: “when it counted, international war crimes prosecutor, putting dictators behind bars, sounded way better than a defender of murder, rape and pillage in a vile genocide. And what did we, the public, learn? We learned these Greens are no better than the rest of the buggers despite an at times holier than thou outlook. Truth is Ghahraman was happy to let it spread that she was a crusading international prosecutor. Sounded great, looked even better. Every now and then she’d say ‘defence’ as well; it was glossed over, or not mentioned at all” – see: Prosecuting evil but quietly defending the indefensible.

Garner suggests Ghahraman’s defending war criminals didn’t fit very well with the Green brand, and therefore had to be de-emphasised. This is also a point made by David Farrar: “Golriz Ghahraman’s brand was the refugee who put heads of states in three continents on trial for war crimes. It was a powerful attractive brand. I believed the brand, as did almost everyone. It is a much much more sexy brand than career defence lawyer” – see: It’s all about the brand.

In this blog post, Farrar lists all the times Ghahraman’s background was misrepresented prior to the election. He argues, “Not once before the election was anything published in a significant forum that informed people she was not a prosecutor in all three cases. Only after the election did this information appear.” And he adds argues it’s simply not credible that Ghahraman would have been unaware of the misrepresentation going on.

For a rebuttal of this, see Greg Presland’s explanation that “a slightly incorrect statement with enough retelling can suddenly become perceived truth”, and that the English language “can be bent into all sorts of ways” – see: Deranged Golriz Syndrome.

Other commentators, however, have also suggested that Ghahraman’s lack of clarity isn’t acceptable. RNZ’s Alex Perrottet says: “it’s also a wonder why she didn’t make it clear which side she was on. Not that there is anything wrong – legally or morally – with that role. Does it say something about her, and the Greens, that it was left off? Her previous comments, including her maiden speech, glossed over her specific role in Africa, but did mention her prosecuting role in Cambodia. She said: ‘I saw that at the Rwanda Tribunal, at The Hague and when I prosecuted the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia’. That line wasn’t off the cuff. It was also used on the Green Party website, introducing an even further ambivalence of her specific tasks” – see: Golriz and the politics of perception.

And the New Zealand Herald made the case for why this episode is important: “For all new young MPs in Parliament, Ghahraman’s experience is an early lesson in the need for absolute honesty in politics. They are now public figures. Everything they say and do is liable to come under close scrutiny. If they are tempted to conceal anything of legitimate public interest, they should ask themselves whether its admission would be more embarrassing than any attempt to cover it up” – see: Greens should have been candid at the outset.

Verdicts on Golriz Ghahraman

Verdict on allegation #1: Not guilty. There is a near consensus that being a defence lawyer to war criminals is a necessary role, even if it sometimes seems distasteful.

Verdict on allegation #2: Guilty. There seems to be no doubt that the Greens and Ghahraman have been attempting to downplay the more uncomfortable and unpalatable side of her legal background. But the seriousness of this “crime” is disputed by many. Certainly, Ghahraman and the Greens have now paid a high price for story which has taken an extraordinarily long time to die down.

Finally, one of the most interesting commentaries on the issue comes from a recently retired minister and party leader. Peter Dunne says that Golriz Ghahraman’s case is far from unique, and we are in a new era in which we can expect more such CV embellishment and deception, and hence all parties need to lift their game – see: What do Golriz Ghahraman and Jiang Yang have in common?