Corporation for Judicial Freedom
The Corporation for Judicial Freedom (CJL), based in Medellín, has been defending human rights and the rights of peoples for more than twenty-five years. It supports local communities and organizations in the fight against impunity and in the reconstruction of historical memory, so as not to forget the crimes committed by paramilitary groups and State agents. Its members represent victims at national and international courts, and more recently, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).
“During the most critical moments, PBI’s accompaniment has enabled us to reach areas we could not otherwise have gone to, to accompany family farmer organisations in the midst of the armed conflict. It has also given us international visibility. PBI has given us important support in raising awareness about judicial cases and about the persecution of members of the Corporation for Judicial Freedom.”
CJL Founder Elkin Ramírez
Working for the rights of rural and urban communities
CJL was founded in 1993 by a group of legal professionals, who considered it important that an organisation dedicated to the defence and promotion of human rights from the legal field exist in the city of Medellín.1 The organization works mainly in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó, with rural and urban population victims of state crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations, including Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights (ESCER) and the rights of peoples.
One of the main focuses of CJL’s work is the support and defence of displaced communities or those at risk of forced displacement, and populations at risk of dispossession due to the implementation of urban development projects and mining and energy projects.
“The accompaniment to local processes and the defence of the territory has been very important. In 2019 we have made significant progress, among others, in Eastern Antioquia,” explains Adriana Arboleda, CJL president and person in charge of the victims’ work team. “It’s encouraging to notice that the citizens’ movement and local communities have been greatly strengthened. Even in very conservative local societies we see that today, peasants are standing up in defence of water and other rights related to their territories. It’s no longer the traditional trade union and social movements that take the lead: now new sectors of society are raising their voices.”2
Twenty-five years of fighting against impunity
In its more than twenty-five years of existence, the fight against impunity has been a common thread in CJL’s work. The Corporation represents victims of State crimes, especially relatives of victims of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, as well as human rights defenders subject to prosecution. CJL has been presenting these often long-standing cases to Colombian ordinary justice courts, the Inter-American Court, and more recently, also to the new transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).
Emblematic cases that the Corporation has taken on include the strategic litigation in favour of the inhabitants of Medellin’s Comuna 13 district, where it accompanies the “La Escombrera” case as well as other cases of enforced disappearances and murders suffered by the inhabitants of this part of the city. It also represents the relatives of peasants’ victims of enforced disappearances in the village of La Esperanza in the Eastern Antioquia region.
CJL carries out its work in alliance with national initiatives such as the “Colombia Never Again” (Colombia Nunca Más) project, which fights against impunity for human rights violations committed in the country between 1966 and 19983, and the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movice).
Claiming justice in the Hidroituango case
Several of the cases that CJL is working on focus on defending the environmental rights of communities, and more specifically, the right to water. One of the sadly famous cases in this area is that of the controversial Hidroituango hydroelectric project, located in the municipality of Ituango in the Antioquia region.
In 2019, the Corporation published a study of twelve municipalities affected by the construction of this hydroelectric plant, highlighting the crimes committed by paramilitary groups and State agents, who individually or jointly have acted against local populations, social leaders, human rights defenders and political opponents.
According to CJL, the study is a way to urge the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition (Truth Commission – CEV), which was formed as a result of the peace agreement between the FARC and the government, “to investigate the causes, effects and the actors that were responsible for over fifty years of political, social and armed conflict with a broad perspective, demonstrating how the war strategy has favoured economic interests of dominant national and international forces.”4
Challenges and opportunities of the transitional justice system
CJL has embraced the 2016 peace agreement as an opportunity to advance its goal of ending impunity for the many crimes that have affected local communities during the Colombian armed conflict. Especially, the commitments agreed between the peace negotiators regarding the Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition System that resulted in the creation of the JEP, the Truth Commission and the Search Unit for Persons Presumed Disappeared open doors that had always been shut.
Adriana Arboleda: “It worries us that the country has not yet managed to overcome inequality, violence and impunity. The greatest difficulty is carrying out a peace process in the midst of a conflict. In the territories violence and murders are increasing. But still, we should not lose hope. We have to build in the middle of all this.”5
Getting the Military who appear before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to really tell the truth and reveal the State’s responsibility for crimes committed against the civilian population is a challenge. However, CJL considers it a significant step forward that the JEP has taken up the Comuna 13 case, which in the ordinary justice system had come to a standstill. Arboleda: “The JEP is putting pressure on the institutions to give answers, which they have never done before.”6
Together with allied social and human rights defence organizations, CJL has submitted various reports to the JEP, the Truth Commission, and the Search Unit for the Disappeared. Among these is a report published in December 2019 that informs the CEV of the events related to land-grabbing and the accumulation of land in the hands of economic powers that have heavily affected indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant communities in Urabá, a region that has been hit hard by the armed conflict.7
Enforced disappearance in La Esperanza
Since 1999 CJL has been the legal representative of relatives of the victims of forced disappearances that occurred in the village of La Esperanza in the municipality of El Carmen de Viboral (Eastern Antioquia region) in 1996. Here, the Peasant Self-Defence Forces of the Magdalena Medio (ACMM) paramilitary group disappeared sixteen people, including three minors.8 The Inter-American Court of Human Rights determined that the Colombian State bears responsibility for this crime, in a ruling that highlights the active participation of the Colombian Military in the forced disappearance of the peasants as well as its connections with the paramilitary groups.9
CJL represents relatives of the victims of the so-called Operation Orion in the Comuna 13 district of Medellín. In October 2019, the judicial case completed seventeen years of impunity10, which according to the National Centre for Reparation and Reconciliation, was “the largest urban military operation that has taken place in Colombia”.11 The operation left seventeen victims of homicide at the hands of the Public Forces, seventy-one people killed by paramilitaries, and three hundred seventy people arbitrarily detained, among other crimes. Today, these crimes are still being committed and, according to CJL are the result of “a reality that is still present in the neighbourhoods of Medellin and that we refuse to keep on living.”12
According to witnesses and declarations of several ex-paramilitary fighters, La Escombrera – a vast piece of land located in the upper part of the Comuna 13 district in Medellín – was used to dump construction debris “in order to clandestinely bury victims of enforced disappearances”.13 CJL accompanies victims in the La Escombrera case, which dates back to the years 2001-2003 and only recently gained new momentum when, in March 2019, a petition regarding enforced disappearances presented to the JEP by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) was granted. It guarantees the care, protection and preservation of sixteen places in the country where the remains of missing persons may rest, including La Escombrera.14
At the hearing in July 2019 in Medellín on precautionary measures granted in this case, the transitional justice tribunal heard witnesses from the Comuna 13. During the hearing it became evident that the Medellín Mayor’s Office, the Antioquia Government, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office hadn’t done enough to find the missing.15
Extrajudicial executions in the Eastern Antioquia region
CJL represents the relatives of the victims of approximately 60 cases of extrajudicial executions involving members of the Security Forces, most of which took place in Eastern Antioquia.
Threats and attacks
CJL members have been subjected to different forms of threats and attacks throughout the organisation’s existence. These include death threats as a result of their human rights defence work16, and attempts to link its members to criminal proceedings as part of judicial setups.17
Since mid-2019, the Corporation has detected illegal interceptions and illegal followings, and during the social protests at the end of that year, unjustified actions were taken by the authorities against some lawyers, including false accusations and attempts to detain them.18
In June 2007, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures in favour of CJL’s members and requested that the Colombian State “adopt the necessary measures to ensure the life and physical integrity of the beneficiaries, and that it report on the judicial actions taken to investigate the facts that gave rise to the precautionary measures.”19 In subsequent years, CJL members have repeatedly expressed their concern that the measures have never been effectively implemented.20
In 2019, the Corporation passed information to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission on new events that pose serious risks to the security of the organization and its members, “so that the Commission pressures the Government to respond and guarantee our safety,” says CJL president Adriana Arboleda. She adds: “We are very concerned about the interceptions and illegal following human rights organizations such as ours are facing.”21
Awards and recognition
CJL has been widely recognised for its work by national and international organisations, as a reference for human rights defence. Among the awards it received are the Georg-Fritze Gedächtnisgabe Human Rights Award in 2010, which was granted by the Cologne Evangelical Churches (Germany). At the ceremony, the Churches highlighted CJL’s work in defence of human rights in Colombia, and in particular the efforts of lawyer Liliana Uribe and her efforts to shed light on extrajudicial executions in the country, and her fight for justice and reparation for what is considered a crime against humanity.22
That same year, CJL was awarded the distinction of being named “Great Human Rights Defender Jesús María Valle Jaramillo”, the annual recognition by Medellin’s Council for dedication to the human rights defence.23
We have been accompanying CJL since 2000.
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