Guest blog: Julia Lowis on human rights in Colombia

4 April 2019

International delegation heads to Colombia to observe the trial of Santiago Uribe Velez in the "12 Apostles" case

An international delegation of lawyers comprising the Colombia Caravana (UK), the Bar Human Rights Committee (England & Wales) and supported by the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk is in Colombia this week to observe final hearings in the case of 'Los Doce Apostoles'.  The main defendant is Santiago Uribe Velez, brother of former President and current Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez, who stands accused of co-founding the paramilitary group 'Los Doce Apostoles' and for the murder of bus driver Camilo Barrientos Duran, allegedly murdered by the group in 1994 in Antioquia.

The victims are represented by Daniel Prado Albarracin, a Colombian human rights lawyer who has represented families of enforced disappearance since the early 1990s.  Despite the adoption of the Colombian peace accord in November 2016,'in Colombia, being a human rights defender is a high-risk occupation': since 2016 there has been an increase in the killings of human rights defenders, to an estimated rate of one in every three days.  These risks are particularly prevalent in the case of lawyers like Prado who seek justice for victims of the armed conflict and fight to pierce the culture of impunity which has surrounded systematic human rights violations for decades.

Colombia is bound by the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, the ICCPR and the ACHR, all of which impose obligations on the State to protect defenders from violations of their rights to physical integrity and private life in the exercise of their professional functions.  Nonetheless, Prado and others like him continue to be subject to serious intimidation and threats to life because of their work.  Since the issuing of the arrest warrant against Santiago Uribe Velez in 2016, the risks have only intensified, not only against Prado but also against key witnesses and judicial officials involved in the proceedings, including  Carlos Enrique Areiza Arango, a witness in the case, who was murdered in April 2018 despite having been granted protection by the Colombian state.  Prado has been the victim of death threats, attempted robberies, being followed by armed men, email hacking, and defamatory public statements against him by high ranking public officials, including Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez.  Although Prado was granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2017, the measures granted by the State are considered inadequate to ensure his protection.

In November 2018 Prado was awarded by Lady Arden at the Supreme Court with one of the inaugural Henry Brooke Awards for Human Rights Defenders,'in recognition of his extraordinary courage and determination in pursuing justice for the oppressed and the marginalized.'

Final submissions in Los Doce Apostoles had been scheduled to take place in December 2018, but were adjourned at the last minute following a late application by lawyers for Santiago Uribe to allow further testimonies from defence witnesses.  The hearings will now take place on 3 and 4 April 2019.

Kirsty Brimelow QC and Rachel Rushby, barrister and solicitor representing the Bar Human Rights Committee and Law Society respectively will be returning to observe the case. They will be joined by new observers Sara Chandler (Law Society) and Edward Abedian (Caravana) this week in order to report on the adherence of the hearings to the international standards of a fair trial:

'It is essential that all lawyers are free to carry out their work without threats or danger to life and that witnesses, lawyers and court officials, Judges and others who may be under threat are adequately protected.  The international trial observation is a physical reminder of the importance of fair due process and a check upon intimidation and vilification.  The court has welcomed the observation.'(Kirsty Brimelow QC, Doughty Street Chambers, BHRC).

Prado also continues to receive protective accompaniment from Peace Brigades International, stating of their role:

'It is extremely significant.  Because although we managed to get the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights to make the Colombian government provide protective measures for human rights defenders, these measures were superficial and ineffective.  So we had to turn to PBI.  They are very important, because of their international nature, in dissuading potential perpetrators of violence.'

 If you share PBI's vision of a world where individuals and communities are free to protect their rights and lands without fear of reprisals and violence, you can help by donating to PBI's Shoulder to Shoulder campaign.

Julia Lowis (call 2013) is a barrister at 3 Hare Court Chambers. Julia holds a Masters (Distinction) in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford.