PHR in Colombia: Supporting Justice and Human Rights through Forensics
In August, International Forensic Program (IFP) Director Stefan Schmitt and two of the program’s expert 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 forensic investigation of cases of forced disappearance and extrajudicial executions.
First, the team from PHR met with attorneys for families of “false positive” victims allegedly executed by the Colombian Military. “False positives” are civilian victims who have been falsely identified by military forces as belonging either to the active guerrilla movement or other illegal armed groups, allowing the military to inflate the number of enemies they killed. Some estimate that thousands of civilians may have been killed for this purpose.
Forensic experts working with PHR’s IFP conducted autopsies and reviewed forensic reports by the Colombian authorities in several of these “false positive” cases. As Colombia is in the process of adopting an adversarial court system—wherein an impartial judge hears arguments from opposing sides in a dispute during trial—the autopsies and meetings were held in preparation for upcoming trials of “false positive” cases. This is a monumental step forward for a country that has long relied on an inquisitorial system of justice, where a state-appointed court or judge both investigates and rules on a case, which can often lead to bias and inadequate protection for defendants.
Second, PHR held a workshop with EQUITAS on "The Role of Forensic Experts in Investigations of Violations of Human Rights," specifically to discuss issues surrounding cross examinations of forensic expert witnesses. Among other topics, PHR’s forensic experts shared their experiences as expert witnesses in international court systems. Many participants felt that the experiences shared by Dr. Bux and Director Schmitt were invaluable, particularly as forensic practitioners from the United States—a system with a very well-established adversarial court system.
Workshop participants included representatives of various non-governmental human rights organizations and delegates from the National Unit of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law to the Attorney General's Office. A great deal of time was spent discussing legal strategies with the prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office.
“The three days of work were very helpful and we believe the impact is quite favorable [for] EQUITAS and the lawyers' organizations we work with,” said Ana Guatame, Co-director of EQUITAS.
The next steps in the PHR/EQUITAS project are to continue to monitor these cases as they move through the Colombian courts, with a distinct possibility of future testimony provided by Dr. Bux and/or Ms. Osorio.