PHR in Colombia: Supporting Justice and Human Rights through Forensics

In August,International Forensic Program (IFP) Director Stefan Schmitt and two of the program’sexpert consultants, Dr. Robert C. Bux and Attorney Nery Osorio, traveled to Bogota,Colombia as part of their ongoing project with local partner organization EQUITAS to support the independent forensicinvestigation of cases of forced disappearance and extrajudicial executions.

First, theteam from PHR met with attorneys for families of “false positive” victimsallegedly executed by the Colombian Military. “False positives” are civilian victimswho have beenfalsely identified by military forces as belonging either to the active guerrillamovement or other illegal armed groups, allowing the military to inflate thenumber of enemies they killed. Some estimate that thousands of civilians mayhave been killed for this purpose.

Forensicexperts working with PHR’s IFP conducted autopsies and reviewed forensicreports by the Colombian authorities in several of these “false positive”cases. As Colombia is in the process of adopting an adversarial court system—whereinan impartial judge hears arguments from opposing sides in a dispute duringtrial—the autopsies and meetings were held in preparation for upcoming trialsof “false positive” cases. This is a monumental step forward for a country thathas long relied on an inquisitorial system of justice, where a state-appointed courtor judge both investigates and rules on a case, which can often lead to biasand inadequate protection for defendants.

Second, PHRheld a workshop with EQUITAS on "The Role of Forensic Experts in Investigationsof Violations of Human Rights," specifically to discuss issues surroundingcross examinations of forensic expert witnesses. Among other topics, PHR’sforensic experts shared their experiences as expert witnesses in internationalcourt systems. Many participants felt that the experiences shared by Dr. Bux and DirectorSchmitt were invaluable, particularly as forensic practitioners from the UnitedStates—a system with a very well-established adversarial court system.

Workshopparticipants includedrepresentatives of variousnon-governmental human rights organizations and delegates from the National Unit of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Lawto the Attorney General's Office. A great deal of time was spent discussing legal strategieswith the prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office.

 “The three days of work were very helpful andwe believe the impact is quite favorable [for] EQUITAS and the lawyers'organizations we work with,” said Ana Guatame, Co-director of EQUITAS.

The nextsteps in the PHR/EQUITAS project are to continue to monitor these cases as theymove through the Colombian courts, with a distinct possibility of futuretestimony provided by Dr. Bux and/or Ms. Osorio.

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