International lawyer Melinda Taylor talks to Contact about her duty to stand up for basic human rights – even when her own safety is at risk.
Even in the face of danger and crushing public pressure, criminal law and human rights lawyer Melinda Taylor has ardently upheld the universal human right to a fair trial, representing polarising figures such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and assisting the defence team of convicted Congolese war criminal Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.
For almost 20 years, the UQ alumnus (Bachelor of Laws ’98, Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) ’98) has served across various international organisations; ensuring all people regardless of creed, ideation, or association have access to due process.
“The imperative that justice must be seen to be done is of even greater importance in connection with the most serious crimes known to humankind,” Taylor said.
“The consequences of a wrongful conviction would not only mean an innocent defendant would face an extremely severe penalty, but that victims would also be deprived of the right to know the truth.”
Taylor has forged an iron will while working on the justice process for some of the worst crimes known to humanity, but her courage was put to the test on 7 June 2012.
It was on this day that she found herself in the desert city of Zintan, in north-western Libya –surrounded by red dust and heavily-armed rebel militia – representing Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Main image caption: Representatives of the Office of Public Counsel for the Defence Xavier-Jean Keita and Melinda Taylor talk in the International Criminal Court before a public hearing of the case against Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Image: Reuters/Michael Kooren
At the behest of the United Nations Security Council, the International Criminal Court (ICC) had issued a warrant calling for the prosecution of Gaddafi for two counts of crimes against humanity.
Taylor and her colleagues had been appointed by the ICC as Gaddafi’s defence counsel to ensure the fair administration of justice.
Already, the case had been plagued with political tension as the ICC sought to extract Gaddafi to conduct his trial at The Hague, but Libyan officials were adamant that he be tried in the country.
“When you are defending someone who is accused of atrocious crimes, it is not just an uphill battle; it is like climbing Mount Everest."
“My clients are people who have fallen from political power, or who have taken on established political powers. As result, it sometimes feels as if I am facing not only the prosecution in the courtroom, but also the full political might of various State actors outside of the courtroom.”
After they arrived in Zintan, Taylor set to work with her colleagues questioning Gaddafi and discussing the case, unaware that their meeting was under surveillance.
Tensions came to a head when, during this discussion, Taylor began to make notes in the margin of her legal papers. These innocent scribbles were misinterpreted by the Libyan militia surveying them as secret coded messages. They accused Taylor of spying and detained her.
The Zintan militia who seized Taylor were amongst the fiercest rebel fighters in the rebellion that ripped through Libya in 2011, during the country’s civil war and ousting of Colonel Gaddafi.
As an ICC official with special diplomatic immunity, various international bodies including the United Nations (UN), NATO and the Australian government, condemned her detainment and called for her release.
It took 26 days before Taylor and her colleagues were safely extracted with the help of Australia’s Ambassador to Libya, fellow UQ alumnus David Ritchie AO (Bachelor of Arts (Honours) ’75, Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) ’16), much to the relief of her parents, her husband and her two-year-old daughter.
Taylor did not allow herself to be deterred by this harrowing experience, taking only one day of leave before returning to work.
“I have worked as an international lawyer for almost 20 years, whereas I was only detained for 26 days. I am doing my best to have the experience inform my life and work, but not define it,” she said.
Melinda Taylor (right) and translator Helene Assaf after being released by Libyan authorities. Image: Reuters
Since then, she has continued to fight for the right to a fair trial.
In 2014, she joined the Assange case to assist with the submission of a complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which came to fruition in February 2016 when their arguments were accepted with the working group confirming Assange was a victim of arbitrary detention.
In the same year, she also joined the defence team for Jean-Pierre Bemba who was successfully acquitted of charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity on 8 June 2018.
“As a lawyer dealing with highly politicised cases, such as the Assange case, it is not enough to simply be right about the law and facts,” Taylor said.
“It is also necessary to engage with various actors on various levels in order to convince them of the danger bred by the selective implementation of international legal obligations and human rights commitments.
“Unfair trials undermine both the credibility of the court and respect for the rule of law. For these reasons, an effective and independent defence is the cornerstone of international justice.”
Despite her success in international law, Taylor admits her life could have been very different had it not been for her mentor, Professor Anthony Cassimatis from UQ’s School of Law.
“I would never have ended up where I am without Professor Cassimatis’ willingness to sacrifice his summer holidays to coach someone, who didn’t know The Hague from Prague, in the intricacies of international law and advocacy,” Talyor said.
“Success isn’t a zero-sum game; if you help others in their careers or lives, you create a network – a virtuous circle of advice, inspiration and support, which will be there throughout your life and career.”
Learn how you can help support future generations of legal leaders.