Interpreting at a terrorist's hearing

21 Aug, 2020
Language interpreter Dr Mustafa Derbashi sitting at a desk.
Language interpreter Dr Mustafa Derbashi, AUT alumnus. Photo: Supplied

All eyes will be on the High Court at Christchurch when victims of the March 15 mosque attacks impart how the massacre affected them – in front of the murderer who did it.

And in the middle of the action at the convicted terrorist’s sentencing will be language interpreter Dr Mustafa Derbashi, helping people to understand and to be understood.

“It was an honour to get the letter ... to be [offered] this role. It is a huge responsibility,” the AUT alumnus says.

The sentencing hearing is expected to last several days, starting August 24, and will be conducted under heightened security.

A large number of victims and their families are expected to attend, with those who can’t be in the room due to Covid-19 restrictions watching a restricted livestream in additional courtrooms or overseas.

Many will read impact statements in front of the offender, who reportedly plans to represent himself after he pleaded guilty to murdering 51 people, attempted murder of 40 people, and engaging in a terrorist act.

Dr Derbashi completed a Graduate Certificate in Arts (Interpreting) at the Auckland University of Technology in 2018, opening the opportunity for him to be a qualified interpreter in courts and tribunals, with the police and in health settings.

“I’ve worked in courts over the past few years and I’ve seen difficult situations ... you need to be of your full consciousness,” he says.

The upcoming hearing however is unprecedented and interpreting for it will no doubt be more difficult.

It’s unpredictable, he says, as the victims and the relatives or anyone who represents them could be part of heightened emotions at the court.

“I am very humbled to be able to serve the country in this way. I would like to give special thanks to my legal and health interpreting lecturers, Jo Anna Burn and Ineke Crezee, both subject experts and excellent teachers.”

Interpreters do not just put together words in different languages, Dr Derbashi says. They need to be trusted and to have an ethical commitment which includes confidentiality, but also to convey the message as it is, without any omission or addition.

Court interpreting also has its own challenges.

“You need to have not just a flexibility, but to be really impartial and ready to face any situation, particularly emotionally, psychologically and when you are talking about legal terms,” he says.

“Even if somebody swears, you need to go there.”

For example, a defence lawyer might use vivid language to ask a victim whether sexual harassment and rape really happened.

If the interpreter could not interpret the question properly, then there could be a miscarriage of justice with an offender getting away with a crime.

Dr Derbashi also interpreted at the Dunedin vigil for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks.

“That was the first huge event I did. I was chosen by the Dunedin City Council at that time… and all the feedback that came afterwards was really amazing,” he says.

“For three hours I interpreted for more than 22 speakers, without knowing anything in advance about their speeches. It was a great honour, and a great challenge as well.”

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