"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." So says Shakespeare's Dick the Butcher in Henry VI Part 2. Dick is advising a pretender to the throne about how to seize power. The idea is, if we get the lawyers out of the way, the lawless can prevail. Four hundred years later, it's still good advice: If you want to violate the law, you have to somehow neutralize those who are sworn to uphold it. In recent weeks, we have seen two different governments--Iran and the United States--take steps to intimidate and marginalize attorneys who are perceived as obstructing their goals.

The more vicious case is taking place in Iran, where "prominent Iranian human rights lawyer and women's rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh [was sentenced] to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes." This is on top of an earlier in absentia sentence of five years imprisonment. Her "crimes" include "inciting corruption and prostitution, openly committing a sinful act by... appearing in public without a hijab, and disrupting public order.” Ms. Sotoudeh has long been a peaceful advocate for women's rights and against the death penalty, and Amnesty International writes that her punishment is the "harshest sentence" that the organization "has documented against a human rights defender in Iran in recent years, suggesting that the authorities – emboldened by pervasive impunity for human rights violations – are stepping up their repression."

This is an important point--the actions of the Iranian government do not occur in a vacuum. They are part of a malignant pattern of torture, harassment, intimidation, and murder of peaceful political opponents. The obvious purpose of this terror campaign is to keep hold of political power and intimidate dissenters into silence. And of course, Ms. Sotoudeh is not alone. As the U.S. State Department notes, "hundreds of others" are also "currently imprisoned simply for expressing their views and desires for a better life."

Commenting on Ms. Sotoudeh's case last summer, the U.S. State Department said, "Ms. Sotoudeh has spent the past several years harassed by the Iranian regime and has been routinely placed behind bars for daring to defend the rights of those in Iran." "We applaud Ms. Sotoudeh’s bravery and her fight for the long-suffering victims of the regime." A State Department spokesperson called Ms. Sotoudeh's more recent sentence "beyond barbaric."

I agree. But unfortunately, it's more difficult for us to condemn Iran and claim the moral high ground when our own country is also intimidating and mistreating human rights attorneys. The extent of our malfeasance is not equal to what we see in Iran, but it's not what we expect from the United States either.

Earlier this month, NBC News reported that "Customs and Border Protection [or CBP] has compiled a list of 59 mostly American reporters, attorneys and activists who are to be stopped for questioning by border agents when crossing the U.S.-Mexican border at San Diego-area checkpoints, and agents have questioned or arrested at least 21 of them." CBP claims that the people on the list "were present during violence that broke out at the border with Tijuana in November and they were being questioned so that the agency could learn more about what started it." The ACLU calls the government's actions an "outrageous violation of the First Amendment,” and argues that the “government cannot use the pretext of the border to target activists critical of its policies, lawyers providing legal representation, or journalists simply doing their jobs."

According to the NBC News report, several lawyers have been targeted. They have been held for hours in secondary inspection, questioned, had their cell phones searched, and--in at least one case--been accused of "alien smuggling," which is a serious crime. Referring to the NBC News report, one attorney said that it "appears to prove what we have assumed for some time, which is that we are on a law enforcement list designed to retaliate against human rights defenders who work with asylum-seekers and who are critical of CBP practices that violate the rights of asylum seekers."

Another lawyer described his brief detention at the border. CBP officials told him that "their job is to investigate terrorism and criminal activity on the border" and they asked him questions about the work he does, the organization he works for, and how the organization gets funded. They also asked him for his cell phone, which he handed over and unlocked. “I have nothing to hide," the lawyer said. "I’m not a criminal. I’m not a terrorist. I’m just doing my job as an American citizen."

The effect of these tactics is not simply to frighten and inconvenience the lawyers who are stopped at the border (and to potentially violate attorney-client privilege). Targeting lawyers (and others) in this manner also has a chilling effect on anyone who might be inclined to assist migrants and try to protect their legal rights. One lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "I was going to go [to Mexico] this week, but I had to worry about whether I could get back in [to the United States]."

Being detained for a few hours and questioned is not the same as being sentenced to lashes and imprisoned for decades. However, the treatment of attorneys in the U.S. and Iran has something in common: It is designed to prevent people from exercising their rights as human beings by reducing their access to legal representation. Whether those people are migrants seeking asylum or women seeking equality, they are entitled to attorneys to assist them in securing their legal rights.

I agree with the U.S. State Department's assessment of Ms. Sotoudeh’s case. She should not be punished for "daring to defend the rights of those in Iran." But neither should U.S. attorneys be punished for daring to defend the rights of those lawfully seeking asylum in the United States. Our country should be setting an example for the world. We should not be lowering ourselves to the level of one of the worst human rights abusers on earth.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.