Mark De Barros and Alexandra Sanchez poured over documents and researched case history like the rest of their GW Law School peers this semester.
But the two students’ work will have real implications when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights hears Veléz v. Colombia next year – the case of Colombian journalist Richard Veléz, who was pummeled to near-death by the National Army while filming a peasant protest in 1996.
For the last six years, various law students in GW’s International Human Rights Clinic – one of 12 clinics at the Law School that provides hands-on legal experience for students – have built an argument for the Veléz family.
The highest human rights court in the Organization of American States – an international organization comprised of 35 countries in the American continents – accepted the case last month, bringing Veléz’s story to trial 15 years after the attack.
As De Barros and Sanchez explored legal intricacies and pinpointed historical precedents to support the case, they also grew to understand the human side of human rights law. They said video footage of the attack opened their eyes.
“It’s one thing to read the case, but it’s a completely different thing to look at the video,” Sanchez, a third-year law student who was born in Colombia, said. “Richard keeps filming while he’s being beaten by the army, so it’s pretty shocking.”
The choppy footage from Veléz’s camera documents Colombian soldiers battering campesinos – the farmers who were protesting the destruction of their coca crop. As Veléz panned left to show tear gas spreading across the soggy fields, Colombian soldiers threw him to the ground.
Veléz “suffered a perforated liver, heavy blood loss, a destroyed testicle, several broken ribs and multiple contusions on the abdomen and legs,” according to court documents.
Veléz did not return a request for comment.
Law professor Arturo Carrillo, who oversees the students’ progress on the case, is ultimately in charge of the litigating. He lived in Colombia during the incident and remembers the media spectacle that surrounded the video.
“Every night on the news for two weeks was the clip of our client getting beaten unconscious by armed forces,” Carillo said.
Veléz now lives in New York City with his wife and two children after he was forced into exile – his legal team will argue – due to threats, harassment and attempted kidnapping.
This real world litigation experience is why GW Law and law schools nationwide have aimed to bolster their law clinics, which serve “to teach students about law, lawyering and the legal profession as they provide vital legal services to people in the community,” Phyllis Goldfarb, GW’s associate dean for clinical affairs, said.
De Barros said his work inside the classroom at the No. 5-ranked international law program in the nation could not compare to meeting the Veléz family and building their case before a real court.
“That’s why the clinic was so amazing,” De Barros, a second-year law student who was born in Brazil, said. “In law school, you have law school classes. You go to class, you read, you learn the law, but on certain level, you don’t learn to be a lawyer.”
The Veléz team will send its merits brief to the Inter-American Court in June and anticipates a trial for next spring.
The state of Colombia defends itself not by denying the Veléz beating took place, but by insisting sufficient judicial steps were taken afterward, and that such actions will prevent future human rights violations.
Human rights abuses, however, remain rampant in Colombia, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The Veléz case will stress the need to end the country’s impunity, Carrillo said.
“If perpetrators of human rights abuses on journalists and other defenders of democracy feel like they can get away with it – because there’s no accountability – they’ll keep doing it,” Carrillo said.
The students may not stay on the case, as the clinic only lasts one semester, but De Barros has kept a mental checklist of their argument: “It’s a violation of due process, judicial protections, freedom of expression, moral integrity, physical integrity, right to honor.”
He added, “We’re shooting for the stars, but we’re very justified in that.”
This article appeared in the April 25, 2011 issue of the Hatchet.