Friday, October 19, 2012

The Chumps at Akin Gump

So Rwanda is reported to have hired the law firm Akin Gump to pursue legal action against the UN Group of Experts and its chief, Steve Hege, in particular. I have had my own quarrel with the GoE, as seen here, but this strikes me as an alarming development. A major law firm can land on your back like a load of bricks. What if governments routinely start to hire law firms to attack people who are critical of them? Will the staff at Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International be next? What about journalists? Or university professors? And precisely what line won't those law firms cross in pursuit of their quarry?
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, speaking yesterday to New York based Metro Newspaper, had tough words for the UN Group of Experts, and in particular its coordinator, Steven Hege.
"We will not take this kind of treatment lying down," Mushikiwabo stated.
The Foreign Minister categorically stated that Hege's long history of opposition towards the Rwandan government is well documented and that the panel has been "hijacked" by his political agenda.
She also revealed that in order to clarify matters once and for all, the government had retained the services of Washington, D.C., law firm Akin Gump to review Mr. Hege's prior writings on Rwanda, which carried out extensive research into Hege's writings and concluded that his placement as chair of the committee was questionable at the very least.
Listen, I'd go to the stake to defend a lawyer's right to defend a client at law, but applying your skills on behalf of a regime alleged to have committed mass murder by attacking the integrity of the people investigating those allegations seems to me to be dirty pool. It's reminiscent of the Scientologists' approach to their critics, and not something I would think a major law firm would want to be associated with. So I gave Akin Gump a call.

 Not surprisingly, the firm refused to answer questions about its work for the Rwandan government, or about much of anything else for that matter. When I spoke to Ben Harris, their director of communication, he told me I should direct all questions about Akin Gump's work to the Rwandan mission at the UN.
Me: "So to be clear, Akin Gump has done some work for Rwanda?"
Gump: "I have no comment for you. Direct your questions to them."
Me: "Has Akin Gump worked for the Rwandan government for long, or was this a one-off event?"
Gump: "I have no comment for you."
Me: "Does Akin Gump represent other, non-democratic leaders in Africa?"
Gump: "Again, you need to direct your questions to the Rwandan mission."
Me: "But this is specifically about Akin Gump. Does it work for other African dictators?"
Gump: "I told you I have no comment. I think you can see where this is going."
Me: "But I'm just wondering, given the prominence with which Akin Gump trumpets its commitment to ethics and integrity, how you square that with--"
Gump: "Goodbye."
 Clearly not one of Akin Gump's proudest moments. I can only hope that the inherent conservatism and code of honor that prevails at most big law firms will prevent this from becoming a trend. Otherwise, we could witnessing a chilling new development for journalists and human rights investigators.

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