International trial observation

In states where the rule of law is fragile, the presence of an international trial observer can make the difference: a recent experience at the ‘12 Apostles’ trial in Colombia


It was a wet Monday morning in May and I was due to meet a barrister outside court before a hearing listed for 10am. Nothing unusual about that, except that the court was in Medellín, Colombia’s second city, once best known for the Pablo Escobar drug cartel, which had supplied 80% of the US cocaine market. And the defendant was Santiago Uribe Vélez, brother of Colombia’s ex-President, who, it is alleged, was leader of the ‘12 Apostles’, a paramilitary death squad implicated in mass murder during the nation’s long civil war. Santiago stood accused of co-founding the group suspected to be responsible for countless murders and disappearances in northern Antioquia from 1988 to 1997 and formally charged with arranging the murder of a bus driver.

I was attending the 12 Apostles trial for the Colombia Caravana (UK) as part of an international delegation, along with Kirsty Brimelow, QC, (Doughty Street Chambers) for the Bar Human Rights Committee (England and Wales) who had attended earlier hearings. The basic aim of trial observation in this and other cases is to monitor and report on the adherence of the process to the international standards of a fair trial. At court Kirsty and I handed the official ordre de mission letters to the judge, prosecutor, defence lawyers Carlos Ivan Mejia and Jaime Granados Peña and lawyers for the victim Daniel Prado and Orlando Bernal Morales, to announce our presence as international observers. The first goal of trial observation is ‘to make known to the court, the parties to the proceedings, the authorities of the country and to the general public the interest in, and concern for, the fairness of the trial in question in order to encourage the court or judge to provide a fair trial’, as explained by the helpful Trial Observation Manual for Criminal Proceedings produced by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).

The proceedings

During the proceedings, evidence was given by survivors of as many as 500 murder victims. One witness had told prosecutors about corpses floating in a river on the Carolina ranch, owned by Santiago Uribe. Another told investigators about the deaths of her two young nephews, snatched by armed men, tied up and executed. At earlier hearings, the international delegation observers have heard the prosecution case alleging close relationships between the defendant, and the army, and the local police in order for the 12 Apostles to operate as paramilitaries.

Kirsty and I observed Santiago Uribe giving evidence, denying he knew the local police chiefs or that they had visited his ranch and claiming the prosecution case was a politically motivated attack on him because he was the brother of ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. In the busy courtroom, he spoke directly to the press who were filming him at close quarters, at one point turning his back to the judge as he faced the television cameras to indicate he did not match the description of him given by a witness. The hearing was widely reported in the national and international media. But it was cut short due to a defence application for an adjournment to allow an interlocutory appeal against a previous ruling of the judge.

Daniel Prado

In Colombia, being a lawyer is a high-risk occupation. The peace accord in November 2016 marked the end of over 50 years of violent armed conflict between the Government of Colombia and the FARC. Since then there has been an increase in the killings of human rights defenders, to an estimated rate of one every three days, with 343 defenders registered killed between the start of 2016 and 22 August 2018. In May 2019 a government lawyer, Paula Rosero Ordóñez, 47, was shot dead at close range. So, as in this case, concern about the safety of the lawyers is a key factor in ensuring a fair trial and committing to trial observation, whether judge, prosecutor, or defence lawyers

I first heard about the case and came across Daniel Prado, lawyer for many of the alleged murder victims last year, when he visited London to speak about the trial; he was visibly shaking when describing fears for his safety. He said that two days before the final 12 Apostles hearings were scheduled to commence, he found his account had been hacked, with all of his emails since 2010 deleted except for the return ticket from Europe to Colombia. Later, at the Supreme Court Lady Arden awarded him an inaugural Sir Henry Brooke Award for Human Rights Defenders, ‘in recognition of his extraordinary courage and determination in pursuing justice for the oppressed and the marginalised.’ After he returned to Colombia, at the end of 2018, a video aired on national TV, attempting to link him to FARC guerillas. He has also experienced surveillance, and says he is receiving insufficient state security, despite being granted special measures of protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He depends on accompaniment by Peace Brigades International volunteer field observers, to monitor his safety when travelling to attend the trial. He has recently taken to Twitter to make accusations against the defence team. Santiago Uribe’s lawyer, Jaime Granados Peña has responded by filing a complaint against him to the Attorney General, seeking an investigation of the threats made against Daniel Prado.

"It is hard to overstate the significance that this trial is taking place, after decades of impunity. Imagine Tony Blair on trial for war crimes in Iraq."

As international observers, our role is to remain independent and neutral and gather information about the process. So we were available to speak to the lawyers involved, the defendant and his family and to participate in meetings with them if requested to listen to their views about the process. Kirsty and I also had a private meeting after the hearing with the presiding judge to ensure we understood the procedural aspects and next steps in the trial, and consider any safety concerns. A major challenge for him was insufficient resources to deal with the 180 pending cases piled up on his desk. Another was the scarcity of bullet-proof vehicles for judges in his court which was established as a specialist court to deal with the more serious crimes such as drug trafficking and paramilitary murders. Asked about the social media row which has erupted between lawyers in the case, in the context of contempt of court, he showed no inclination to intervene in matters outside the case itself, stressing to us that the principle of open justice was central to the Colombian legal system.

Systematic human rights violations

It is hard to overstate the significance of the mere fact this trial is taking place, after decades of impunity. Imagine Tony Blair on trial for war crimes in Iraq. Santiago’s brother Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s ex-president, has long been the country’s most influential politician. He is still considered as its kingmaker after his preferred candidate Iván Duque Márquez won the presidential election in June 2018. (Duque met Theresa May during his first official visit to the UK in mid June.)

The case is emblematic of systematic human rights violations carried out during the armed conflict, due to the nature of the crimes committed, and the culture of impunity which surrounds such acts until over 20 years after their commission.

The Colombian state has a legal duty to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of such acts. The trial is a significant step forward, assuming it reaches a conclusion, regardless of its outcome. At the time of writing, we are awaiting the outcome of the appeal by Santiago’s legal team on a preliminary issue in which they are challenging the sanity of a witness in the case. Once a date for the final hearing has been announced we will be planning a return visit to Medellín, City of Eternal Spring. International trial observation is a vital tool in Colombia and other states where the rule of law is fragile and our presence might just make a difference.

Sue Willman is a partner in Deighton Pierce Glynn, member of the Colombia Caravana UK Lawyers Group and Chair-Elect of the Law Society Human Rights Committee.

To donate towards the mission please click here.


The ongoing trial observation was initiated by the Colombia Caravana UK Lawyers Group represented by Professor Sara Chandler QC (Hon); Sue Willman; Alexandra Zernova; Rachel Rushby; and Edward Abedian; the Bar Human Rights Committee represented by Kirsty Brimelow QC; and the Faculty of Advocates’ Human Rights and Rule of Law Committee (Scotland), represented by Simon Crabb. The mission is recognised by the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk, in the UK. Thanks to all for their participation in the mission and contributions to this article, in particular to Julia Lowis and Kirsty Brimelow QC.

Image: Colombia FARC peace: Pictures of the victims of the armed conflict are displayed during a protest outside the Colon theater in Bogota, as members of the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia attend a ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of the peace agreement (24 November 2017).

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Sue Willman

Sue Willman is a partner in Deighton Pierce Glynn, member of the Colombia Caravana UK Lawyers Group and Chair-Elect of the Law Society Human Rights Committee.