Human rights defender Jorge Eliecer Molano Rodriguez talks exclusively to John van der Luit-Drummond on why he is hopeful for Colombia’s future and why the UK must remain committed to its international obligations
On 6 and 7 November 1985, members of the M-19 guerrilla group entered the Palacio de Justicia in Bogota, Colombia, taking 300 people, including 24 justices and 20 other judges, as hostages. A siege soon developed. Over 100 people later died when the Colombian military stormed the court. Among the dead were 11 of the country’s 25 Supreme Court judges.
‘The point that has always concerned us about this case is that it seems the armed forces and security forces knew that the guerrillas were going to enter the palace, and why they removed protection from it, and why they exposed the judges to danger,’ says human rights lawyer Jorge Eliecer Molano Rodriguez.
Yet Molano explains that the most disturbing part of this massacre was in learning how Spanish television showed that eight cafeteria workers, and three visitors, as well as a member of M-19, left the palace alive that day only to never be heard from again.
‘What we know is that afterwards they were taken to a military base, where they were tortured, and nothing more has ever been heard from them,’ says Molano. ‘A judge was also seen being taken out of the building by members of the armed forces – he was alive and he was limping. Strangely, two days later his body was found inside the Palacio de Justicia, dead.’
The Colombian justice system only began investigating the specifics of that grisly day 25 years after the incident took place.
In 2010, retired army colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega was sentenced to 30 years in jail for his role in the forced disappearance of the 11 civilians seen leaving the court. However, the president of the Republic of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, took to TV and radio, just hours after the sentencing, surrounded by the military high command, to criticise the court’s judgment as an unjust sentence which favoured terrorism.
In the aftermath of the sentencing, and before additional defendants could be brought to trial, the investigating prosecutor was removed from public office, which Molano claims was a mechanism to protect other members of the military.
In addition, judge Maria Estela Jara, who found Plazas Vega guilty, reportedly received threats and was followed, and her family was the subject of intimidation.
‘We saw in this case how a whole series of people – prosecutors, victims, people who investigated the facts, judges, lawyers who were seeking to combat impunity – were subject to threats and intimidation, and other actions,’ adds Molano.
If that was not enough, the lawyer who initially represented the victims was later found murdered. For Molano, that particular death was of personal significance.
‘I think the worst…strongest experience was to find out that the person who had been my teacher, the person who had trained me professionally, had been murdered in his office just as a result of the fact that he was devoting his work to struggling for justice and denouncing state crimes. He was Eduardo Umaña Mendoza.’
Dr Umaña was one of Colombia’s most prominent human rights lawyers when, on 18 April 1998, he was killed by a right-wing paramilitary. Dr Umaña had gained prominence defending guerrilla leaders and leftist activists in Colombia before his slaying.
Molano himself has also become the subject of unwelcome attention from those that do not appreciate his work defending the human rights of victims of state abuses.
In December 2009, an armed group, dressed as civilians, attempted to enter Molano’s home. He later discovered that his mobile phone was tapped, his office put under surveillance, his wife followed, and he received threats over the internet. Yet Molano says such actions by the security and paramilitary forces are commonplace in his country.
‘There are many cases where human rights defenders have suffered attacks in their offices or their offices have been entered in order to steal information. Intelligence bodies of the government have paid people to obtain information in human rights defenders’ houses. It’s also common that they search through their rubbish to see what information they can find in the stuff they’ve thrown away.
‘In my case, armed men tried to enter my house when I was in the course of a case against members of the armed forces who had been responsible for enforced disappearances. Usually acts like that are carried out against people who develop our work of observing the way the armed forces operate,’ he explains.
‘The pressure I’ve received has come from state agents or from members of paramilitary groups, which work with support from or are tolerated by the government’, he adds. ‘In the attacks suffered by human rights defenders, 80 per cent of cases come from these two sources.’
Under a constant fear of harm, one has to wonder what gives Molano the impetus to continue to fight for the rights of his clients.
‘Eduardo Umaña said that it’s better to die for something than to live for nothing. We have the hope that there could be a real rule of law in Colombia, that crimes such as these could be punished and not repeated, and that our children will be able to live one day in a democratic society, where to think differently isn’t a crime, where to struggle for human dignity isn’t considered the action of an enemy. I want my children to be able to return to the country in safety,’ he explains.
But just how close is Colombia to realising Molano’s dream?
‘It’s not easy,’ he shrugs, ‘because what has happened up until now is to construct whole laboratories of impunity – the paramilitaries are favoured by a generalised impunity, and as well as permitting this generalised impunity, we’ve seen the way these groups maintain their presence across the country and continue intimidating and attacking the country.
‘We hope that peace will be signed between the state and the guerrillas during negotiation, but we’re concerned that the government continues to maintain these groups that attack the population, and attack human rights defenders. While these structures are maintained, and while they remain protected by the state, very few transformations are going to be possible.’
Human rights honour
Molano is one of the most eminent human rights lawyers in Colombia, helping the victims and relatives of victims of state abuses in a number of high-profile cases, such as the hostage crisis at the Palace of Justice.
He has also represented victims of the Comunidad de Paz of San José de Apartadó. On 21 February 2005 several villagers of the Peace Community, who had sworn not to become involved in the conflict in Colombia, were killed.
Among the dead were the village’s leader, Luis Eduardo Guerra, and his wife, Beyanira Aleiza. Alongside their dismembered bodies was that of their 11-year-old son, Deyner Andrés.
Several members of the Colombian army, as well as a paramilitary unit, have been convicted by the courts of such crimes as murder, acts of barbarism, and conspiracy, in connection with the attack on San José de Apartadó. Yet a full investigation into the massacre has seemingly stalled.
On 29 May, Molano received the Lawyers for Lawyers award in Amsterdam. The honour is awarded to a lawyer, or group of lawyers, who work to promote the rule of law and protect human rights, only to find themselves threatened because of their work. It was a prize Molano says he was not expecting to receive.
‘The idea is to be able to develop our work freely without any pressures, and really it’s a problem for us that the work should come to here because the government of Colombia can’t or doesn’t guarantee free defence of human rights.
‘We understand this is homage to the defenders of human rights in Colombia who have to operate in conditions with absolutely no protection. It’s sad that recognition has to be given simply because we do work which is a commitment that one has with the rest of humanity, especially when in places like Colombia a human rights defender receives threats every day, and every six days one is murdered.’
Media reports of attacks on human rights often focus on abuses committed in the Middle East – such as the case of the activist blogger, Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for advocating free speech on his blog – or Eastern Europe, where the United Nations fears that combatants on both sides of the conflict in east Ukraine may be committing war crimes.
However, Molano is hopeful that thanks to the work of the Colombian Caravana, and other European lawyers, the spotlight will now shine more brightly on his country’s troubles.
‘The role of the Caravana and the lawyers from Britain who work to defend lawyers operating around the world is essential. It contributes in a significant way to the British authorities’ understanding of what is happening in our country, so that this information can be reflected in the reports produced by the British authorities.
‘But we would also hope that the British government reassesses its cooperation with Colombia. Cooperation should be conditional on the achievement of real guarantees for human rights defenders and respect for the rights of the victims so that the state of Colombia advances towards a real rule of law,’ he adds.
An ethical position
Fresh from his triumph at the L4L awards, Molano arrived in London last week to speak at the Law Society of England and Wales on transitional justice during peace processes, and to lobby the British government to take a stronger stance against human rights abuses in Colombia.
Just a few hours earlier, the prime minister, David Cameron, declared that he would be prepared to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) if reform to human rights law in the UK were to be rejected by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg.
Responding to a question by the Conservative chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, Cameron declared that ‘absolutely nothing’ was off limits as the government drives ahead with its controversial proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a ‘British Bill of Rights’.
If the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR, Molano remarks, then its standing as a defender of human rights on the international stage would likely be diminished, with serious repercussion for those who fight for those same basic rights in Colombia.
‘Human rights are conquests that humanity has made, the recognition of a victory of human society, a victory that should be developed, increased, enlarged, and deepened,’ he says.
‘It’s a negative message to take a step back in the guarantee of human rights. Any democratic society should embrace these international duties and promote their acceptance around the world. I don’t think we should move towards an anarchic world in which incentive is given to the idea that rights are a local problem.
‘That leads to a lack of protection for human beings, and it gives incentive to countries in the south that they should follow the example of countries in the north. If this were to happen, it would be a bad example,’ Molano adds.
He continues: ‘It’s important to defend the needs of the people as a basis for human rights, that human dignity is something that should be defended at all times, but also, to argue that human rights can’t be given up, they can’t be negotiated, and they can’t be eliminated.
‘The dream of a free man should continue to be the target of the struggles of humanity. Law should always be ethical and just. You have the option to defend victims or the perpetrators – both sides have the right to be defended. An ethical position should be defined according to who we are.’
Photos copyright of Colombian Caravana
This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 9 June 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission