Colombia’s justice system has seen no improvement over the past few years. The chronic under-staffing of prosecution offices continues to impede judicial processes, while the country’s judges, lawyers and prosecutors continue to be submitted to threats and violence, according to a newly released report.
The International Caravana of Lawyers launched the report, titled “Colombia: The Legal Profession Still Under Attack,” in London on Thursday, after a delegation of 57 lawyers from 15 countries visited Colombia and gleaned what they could from legal workers throughout the country.
The report illuminates a legal system in which “Regrettably, the Delegation could not note a significant improvement in access to justice and free exercise of the legal profession since it last visited Colombia in 2008.”
“The Delegation found that there continues to be a large number of assassinations of and threats against Colombian lawyers, human rights defenders and trade unionists…and, in many cases, [they] do not seem to receive the attention by authorities that such threats deserve,” the report states.
One of the main obstacles to any progress towards achieving justice, however, is the “insurmountably high” number of cases that each prosecutor is managing at any given time.
In the southern department of Nariño, Prosecutor’s Office lawyers have an average of 700 cases open simultaneously. Moreover, in the northern city of Cucuta, Norte de Santander department, only two prosecutors are investigating the estimated 5000 cases of human rights violations attributed to the AUC’s Bloque Catatumbo group.
Across the country the picture is much the same, the report states, with insufficient numbers of prosecutors complicated further “by lack of training and staff resources.”
The 2005 Justice and Peace Law, part of the paramilitary demobilization process under former President Alvaro Uribe, came in for severe criticism from all angles and from all regions of the country, particularly because the maximum penalty of eight years could not possibly provide justice for many of the heinous crimes committed.
Aside from the now well-publicized fact that many demobilized paramilitary leaders were simply replaced by their mid-level subordinates, with neo-paramilitary groups continuing their legacy, many complaints said that “an insufficient investigation had been made and that the testimony of the demobilised paramilitary was left relatively unchallenged.”
“Across the board, those with whom the Delegation met demonstrated a complete mistrust in the Justice and Peace process. There was a general sense that this was a fatally flawed system. Many stated the perception that the system was, at worst, designed to benefit the perpetrators and, at best, had the effect of favouring them rather than the victims,” the report noted.
The group of international lawyers also indicated that the justice system’s independence has been called into question due to the “very real and pressing concern” that many prosecutors “worked too closely with the military to maintain independence.”
Apparently legal charges are often “based almost exclusively on military intelligence reports, [the] use of which are not admissible as evidence under Colombian law.”
On a more positive note, government stigmatization and interference appears to have been much worse under the previous administration of Alvaro Uribe, and requests to refrain from using the media to contest judicial decisions have largely been adhered to.
President Juan Manuel Santos has thus far been supportive of the Colombian courts’ independence, although the recent Supreme Court decision to declare the “Raul Reyes” FARC files as inadmissible has caused some government officials to speak out, albeit if the most vociferous critic was former President Uribe.
Yet with impunity levels incredibly high and legal professionals facing threats from all sides amid a mountain of cases, the report suggests that Colombia still has far to go before any significant improvement is registered.