App developed by South Asia Hub will help region’s activists gain access to justice in just a few clicks of their phone
When Junaid Hafeez, a young university lecture in Pakistan, was arrested in 2013 on allegations of posting derogatory social media comments about the Prophet Muhammad, it was difficult to find a lawyer to defend him.
Finally, revered lawyer Rashid Rehman took up the case despite reportedly receiving death threats - and was murdered in his chamber in cold blood.
“Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan - once a person is accused of committing blasphemy, it becomes very difficult to prove his or her innocence,” says Haroon Baloch, program manager for Bytes for All (B4A), a human rights research think tank with a focus on information and communication technologies, and a member of the Innovation for Change (I4C) South Asia Hub.
Now, in a bid to increase civil society’s access to justice B4A and the Hub have created what is thought to be the region’s first app to provide a database of pro-bono legal defenders and civil society organisations (CSOs) that activists in danger can easily connect with in just a few clicks.
The Advolocate app features a geo-tagging option and filters to easily find vetted, secure and on-demand names and contact details of lawyers and other legal resources in the user’s nearest area, their area of expertise and details of human rights CSOs. Users can save their favorite resources and share listings via email and text through the Android app.
“The Junaid Hafeez case symbolizes that justice delayed is justice denied,” said Mr. Baloch.
“The app will be a much-need resource for at-risk CSOs and individuals in the region to easily gain access to legal aid services, which at times is very difficult especially for individual human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists and activists.”
In South Asia, often the only recourse after a clampdown by governments is through access to justice. However, court battles are time-consuming and financially draining. Civil society activists may be busy traveling to various locations and unaware of the laws that may impact their civic space. As they may not understand complex legal language spoken by police, they may also be unable to defend their rights on the ground.
Connecting supply and demand: cascading legal resources in South Asia
The idea for Advolocate was conceived during a 2019 co-design workshop in Colombo. Access to legal aid on-demand and scaling existing legal aid programs to try to counter the intensifying trend of closing civic space both regionally and globally were identified as a key concern across six I4C workshops held. B4A started the development of the app in July 2020.
The I4C Helper Hub took the lead by conducting comprehensive mapping of existing legal aid services. The results were given to the South Asia Hub Incubation team to build on and further iterate a prototype that would fit the regional context and fill in the legal aid gaps for civil society.
The Hub mapped the resources available for CSOs in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, identifying 728 lawyers and 204 organisations. Access to the mapping and referrals is available for members, and the Hub has developed an electronic library on the I4C platform for easy access and referrals to legal aid.
Advolocate will be officially launched at an I4C inter-regional retreat in 2021.
“Several South Asian countries including Pakistan, India and the Maldives have been enacting restrictive laws or implementing policies that shrink civic space,” said Mr. Baloch.
“This makes it very difficult for civil society to work on the protection and promotion of human rights, but this app will be able to assist them.”
Barriers to a flourishing rule of law
In September 2020, Pakistan introduced a vague law criminalising criticism of the armed forces on social media, after a campaign where a journalist exposed one of the country’s most powerful generals over his overseas assets. This illustrates how important the app will be for journalists and civil society and activists. Under the proposed law, offenders can receive a jail term of up to two years, a fine of up to 500,000 rupees, or both.
In 2013, the country introduced regulation of foreign-funded NGOs. Neighbouring India has already in place a draconian Foreign Contribution Act to regulate foreign contributions, particularly monetary donations, from certain individuals or groups to NGOs and others in the country, restricting freedom of association. With dozens of organisations at least already denied licences, the law is disrupting the work of civic groups.
The government of the Maldives has meanwhile raided several NGOs, with journalists and HRDs also targeted both by state and non-state actors. Earlier this year the authorities seized funds from leading CSO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN).
Considering challenges to accessing legal aid elsewhere, Mr. Baloch says the app could also be replicated in I4C’s other regional Hubs including Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
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According to a 2019 report by World Justice Project (WJP), who work to advance the rule of law around the world, challenges like low levels of capability, issues accessing appropriate assistance and the cost of the resolution process are preventing 1.4 billion people from meeting their daily civil and administrative justice needs.