November 25, 2020

Tanzania: American Bar Association Statement of Concern on Permanent Disbarment of Tanzanian Lawyer, Fatma Karume

The ABA is deeply concerned with the decision of the Advocates Disciplinary Committee to permanently disbar Ms. Fatma Karume from practicing law in Tanzania and urges the Committee to immediately reconsider its decision.

Photo courtesy of Fatma Karume

Photo courtesy of Fatma Karume

The American Bar Association (ABA) is deeply concerned with the decision of the Advocates Disciplinary Committee in Tanzania, delivered on September 23, 2020, to permanently disbar Ms. Fatma Karume from practicing law in Tanzania. The decision follows Ms. Karume’s suspension by the High Court in September 2019, based on allegations of unprofessionalism and misconduct arising from language she used in a constitutional case challenging President Magufuli’s appointment of Professor Adelardus Kilangi as the Attorney General of Tanzania. Reviewing the decision of the Advocates Disciplinary Committee, the ABA considers Ms. Karume’s disbarment to be a disproportionate penalty under international law norms. Only in the most serious of cases of misconduct must a lawyer be disbarred.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers are clear that lawyers must be able to perform their duties without intimidation or harassment and should not suffer retaliation for action taken in accordance with their professional duties (Art. 16). The U.N Basic Principles (Art. 23) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 19), which Tanzania ratified in 1976, further affirm that lawyers, like other citizens, have the right to freedom of expression. The U.N Basic Principles specifically note that lawyers have “the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights” (Art. 23).

The U.N Basic Principles also affirm that governments and professional associations of lawyers “shall ensure” that there is no discrimination “against a person with respect to … continued practice within the legal profession on the grounds of … political or other opinion” (art. 10). The report on Protecting the Independence of Judges and Lawyers (A/71/348) issued by the U.N Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, further notes that disbarment “constitutes the ultimate sanction for the most serious violations of the code of ethics and professional standards … [and] should only be imposed in the most serious cases of misconduct” (para. 96). A robust and independent legal profession is thus one of the cornerstones for the maintenance of the rule of law and respect for human rights.

The ABA is concerned that the excessive punishment imposed on Ms. Karume, a lawyer who is a vocal critic of the government and involved in a case challenging an action of the government, threatens the rule of law. Based on the punitive actions taken against Ms. Karume, other lawyers may hesitate to exercise their rights to freedom of expression. They may also be deterred from engaging in cases of public interest, which, coupled with the recent enactment of legislation in Tanzania which restricts civil society organizations from undertaking pubic interest litigation cases, could undermine Tanzanian citizens’ rights to seek redress and remedies for violations of their rights. These concerns arise in the context of increasing restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms as evidenced by: the arrests and harassment of journalists, human rights defenders and opposition members; the suspension or deregistration of independent media houses and non-governmental organizations; and the enactment of restrictive legislation, all prior to the October 2020 elections. The ABA urges the Advocates Disciplinary Committee to immediately reconsider its decision to permanently disbar Ms. Fatma Karume.