New Zealand’s first refugee MP in controversy

Golriz Ghahraman, who has been elected as a Greens MP in the 2017 New Zealand election. Photograph: Golriz Ghahraman
Golriz Ghahraman, who has been elected as a Greens MP in the 2017 New Zealand election. Photograph: Golriz Ghahraman
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “New Zealand’s first refugee MP in controversy over legal defence of war criminals” was written by Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th November 2017 05.58 UTC

One of New Zealand’s newest MPs has defended herself against accusations of misleading the public about her role as a UN human rights lawyer in Rwanda.

Golriz Ghahraman became the focus of criticism after a picture emerged of her smiling next to a man who was later convicted of war crimes in Rwanda.

Ghahraman, who was the first refugee elected to the New Zealand parliament, has defended her work for the UN as a defence and prosecutions lawyer and said she has been nothing but “open” regarding her career, and that she was “deeply offended” by suggestions about her character.

The Greens MP rejected accusations she is a “genocide denier” after a former Labour party staffer, Phil Quin, now resident in Rwanda, released a picture of her as a UN intern posing with Hutu pop singer Simon Bikindi.

Bikindi was convicted of direct and public incitement to commit genocide and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.

The New Zealand Law Society and legal experts have leapt to Ghahraman’s defence, saying attacks on her are “unacceptable”. The Green Party co-leader James Shaw dismissed the criticism of his colleague as “a political hit-job”.

But critics of Ghahraman say she was not transparent regarding the full range of her work for the UN, and failed to mention her contribution to the defence of war criminals in her maiden speech to parliament or in her Greens profile, which has since been amended to expressly detail her time as part of legal defence teams for UN tribunals.

Valentine Rugwabiza, Rwanda’s permanent representative to the United Nations, commented on the picture of Ghahraman and Bikindi, saying “Scandalous!”, as have numerous other Rwandans in-country and abroad.

“It’s really hard to act on the defence in those trials but you’ve got to be really committed to that human rights-based process,” Ghahraman told Newshub.

“You’re there to make the process fair. So to say that there’s a moral problem, to suggest that all of these United Nations lawyers, where the UN requires that there’s a defence and a prosecution are somehow morally repugnant, is actually offensive to be honest.”

Law Society president Kathryn Beck said: “The current comments on Green MP Golriz Ghahraman appear to be over her alleged failure to state that she had both defended and prosecuted people charged with war crimes.

“It is natural that people might be angry and distressed by such cases and the perpetrators, but it is totally wrong to identify the lawyer with the client’s actions.”

However, some New Zealanders – and Rwandans – have expressed concern that a member of parliament could be part of a legal team defending a war criminal, and said her moral standing was compromised.

“Worrying that she gets to represent New Zealand and it’s values,” wrote one person on Twitter.

“Genocide and mass murder defence jobs should rule one out to represent our values. Or at least it should not be hidden.”

Newshub’s Duncan Garner said Ghahraman had “allowed herself to be painted as an angel”, and “allowed this narrative to take place and to take hold that she was on the side of the good all the time when she was actually defending evil”.

The New Zealand Herald’s political editor Barry Soper said at the very least Ghahraman had “fudged” the truth, though numerous journalists who interviewed her said she was straightforward regarding her varied roles at the UN.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Myrddin Gwynedd

Myrddin Gwynedd

Journalism Tutor at NZ Radio Training School
Myrddin Gwynedd is an award-winning writer who hails from Wales. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with his partner and an army of felines.
Myrddin Gwynedd

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