In June I blogged for SJ on the work of the Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group, a group of international lawyers that monitor the human rights abuses faced by legal professionals in Colombia, prior to its fourth biennial visit to the country in August.
This year the Caravana comprised 70 members, including five judges, from 12 different countries. Together they visited seven regions around the country, meeting regional human rights lawyers and defenders as well as state officials, along the way.
This week I caught up with Sara Chandler, chair of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee and chair of the Caravan who told me that the situation in certain parts of the Colombia remains dire with many lawyers having been killed since the Caravana’s last visit.
Chandler advised that she has recently returned from working with a group of 30 lawyers in Cartagena called Circulo de Litigantes de Bolivar Sixta Asprilla. The group works on cases on a pro bono basis assisting victims of human rights violations.
The collective is named in memory of one of its former colleagues, well-respected black lawyerSixta Asprilla, who was shot and murdered by paramilitaries for fighting for the rights of his clients.
This is far from an isolated incident. Chandler was told that another member of the team, AdilMelendez, recently survived an assassination attempt himself. He was eventually awarded protective measures by the Inter American Commission for Human Rights and has a team of three bodyguards on station to protect him along with a vehicle for transportation.
However, Melendez has had his petrol allowance substantially and systematically cut by 50 per cent each month. Chandler explained that up to last week Melendez was struggling to pay to fill his ‘getaway’ vehicle with petrol.
Melendez is now in a difficult position. On 23 August he took the decision to only travel to meet his clients for half of the month. For any UK lawyer this is unlikely to seem an issue. The convenience of email and telephone (or even an antiquated fax machine) allows for communication with clients without ever having to leave the comfort or security of one’s own office.
Yet for Melendez this restriction substantially limits his capacity to represent his clients, many of whom are the victims of significant human rights violations in some of the remote areas of southern Bolivar. This area is still a paramilitary stronghold and so, without a protection detail and fuel in his petrol tank, he would be vulnerable to reprisals when travelling.
If the dangers of travel were not bad enough, Colombian lawyers also have great difficulty in gaining entry to prisons to visit their clients. Chandler visited one such institution, a prison on the outskirts of Cartagena, called La Ternera. This penitentiary was constructed with room for a population of 1400 prisoners. However, the prison is currently overcrowded with 2547 prisoners according to Chandler.
A prison cell designed to hold four prisoners is crammed full with inmates, some with 10 or even 12 inside. Moreover, the prison’s allowance to cover such basic necessities as food, bedding and transport of its prisoners is just 7,000 pesos, about £2.50 per day.
Even with lower costs in Colombia, this is far below what is necessary for the day-to-day running of the facility and for those incarcerated within it. Above is photo of Chandler and some of her team outside the La Ternera prison gates.
Perhaps somewhat ironically, the Caravana along with other human rights lawyers have expressed grave concerns about the impending release of many former paramilitaries from such prisons. According to the Caravana, the Colombian authorities should provide ‘concrete guarantees’ to ensure that the release of paramilitaries does not threaten the security of those working in the defence of human rights, such as Melendez.
Last week, the British Ambassador, based in Bogota, recognised the vital and courageous work of Colombian human rights lawyers. Many, including Melendez, gave moving speeches on why they continue to represent victims of injustice. The speeches can be viewed here.
You can read a breakdown of the Caravan’s recent visit here, as well as a speech by Chandler at the opening of International Caravana De Juristas 2014. Chandler will be providing further updates on the Caravana’s latest tour in the weeks to come.
Chandler and the Caravana remain determined to continue to support human rights lawyers in Colombia. It is a worthy cause and one which relies on the continued support of the international legal community.
This blog was first published in the Solicitors Journal on 3 September 2014 and is reproduced with kind permission.