Seeking justice for familiar atrocities with a new legal approach, International Human Rights Law Clinic Associate Director Roxanna Altholz ’99 has signed on to advocate for victims of Colombian paramilitary leaders extradited in May to the United States.
At a recent press conference in Bogota, Colombia, Altholz and Almudena Bernabeu, an attorney from the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, announced they would represent victims of the 14 extradited paramilitary chiefs. Some of these chiefs are now engaged in plea negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Altholz and her colleague plan to use the Crimes Victims’ Rights Act to help their clients. This statute establishes that crime victims have the right to be notified, present and reasonably heard—and the reasonable right to confer with the prosecution—at any public court proceeding involving sentencing, plea, release, or parole.
“We have been retained by 12 victims and anticipate receiving more retainers,” says Altholz. “This marks the first time that this legislation will be used on behalf of victims of human rights abuses. We want to dialogue with federal prosecutors so these drug trafficking investigations and extraditions don’t become an obstacle to truth and justice in Colombia.”
Altholz and her colleagues argue that paramilitary victims are drug trafficking victims because drug profits were routinely used to finance violent massacres. The extradited paramilitaries are members of the United Self-Defenses of Colombia—designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government—whose leadership has admitted that 70 percent of the group’s violent activities were funded by drug proceeds.
“The United States should not conduct these prosecutions for drug trafficking at the expense of the investigations for murder,” says Altholz. “That’s counter-productive not only for my clients, but for U.S. counter-narcotics efforts. If these paramilitary groups are to be truly dismantled, there have to be full confessions about their drug trafficking activities, links to government officials and human rights crimes.”
Clinic Students to Help
When the fall semester begins, four IHRLC students will work closely with Altholz to help her clients seek justice. They will draft motions, perform other litigation tasks, and may travel to Colombia.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to experience innovative human rights advocacy,” says Altholz. “They’ll acquire real litigation skills through this pioneering work.”
In 2003, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the United Self-Defenses of Colombia. The agreement promised leniency and government benefits if the combatants disarmed, forfeited assets, and told the truth about the human rights abuses they had committed.
During the last five years, tens of thousands of paramilitaries demobilized, and the commanders began to talk about their involvement in massacres, forced disappearances, and torture. They also revealed information about their ties with government officials, including some of President Alvaro Uribe’s closest political allies.
Although flawed, Altholz says the process provided a measure of accountability and the promise of creating an historical record of the violence. In May, however, Uribe’s administration agreed to extradite 14 paramilitaries—including several high-level commanders—to the U.S.
“The extradited paramilitaries are responsible for massive human rights violations,” Altholz says. “Many have committed more murders than (former Chilean dictator Augusto) Pinochet. They are seeking plea bargains for the drug-trafficking and money laundering charges in the U.S. while the investigations for the murders and disappearances they committed in Colombia are at a standstill.”
Altholz says Colombian human rights victims are willing to tolerate leniency in exchange for revelations about the crimes committed, the location of the disappeared, and where murder victims are buried. “The U.S. Department of Justice,” she says, “should ensure that Colombian victims can actively participate in U.S. proceedings.”
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— By Andrew Cohen