GW Law International Human Rights Clinic Brings Its First Case Before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Vélez v. Colombia brings attention to the human rights abuses of a journalist and his family in Colombia

April 11, 2011—The George Washington University Law School's International Human Rights Clinic (IHR Clinic) will litigate its first case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Court) later this year in a case that aims to bring justice to a reporter who was found to have been abused and forced into exile by the government of Colombia in 1996.

The case of Luís Gonzalo "Richard" Vélez Restrepo and Family v. Colombia (12.658) involves an attack suffered by journalist Richard Vélez on August 29, 1996, at the hands of soldiers of the Colombian National Army (CNA), and the subsequent persecution of Richard and his family for their pursuit of justice.  The case was sent to the Court on March 2, 2011, because the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) had found that the state of Colombia had not complied with recommendations contained in the Commission’s merits report.

At the time of the attack, Richard Vélez was filming a protest in which CNA soldiers beat several protesters, incidents documented by Mr. Vélez.  These events were followed by death threats against Mr. Vélez and his family, which intensified when he tried to move the judicial proceedings forward.  In this context, and after he had suffered a kidnapping attempt, he was forced to flee Colombia on October 9, 1997, and for more than a year was separated from his wife, Aracelly “Sara” Román, their two small children, Juliana and Mateo, who remained in hiding in Colombia.  In the fall of 1998, the family was reunited in New York City, where the family currently resides (they have been granted political asylum and also recently acquired United States nationality status).

The GW IHR Clinic—part of the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics at GW Law—contends that the serious human rights violations that led to Mr. Vélez’s forced exile and that of his family remain in total impunity, as the Colombian state did not conduct serious, effective investigations to identify much less punish those responsible.  The attack and subsequent acts of harassment, which were motivated by the journalist's determination to document and denounce the abuses by the Colombian armed forces, violated his rights to physical integrity and to freedom of thought and expression, and also had a chilling effect on other journalists and on Colombian society in general.  The special protections afforded by the American Convention on Human Rights (Convention) to the family and children were also violated by the state of Colombia. Mr. Vélez is currently unable to practice his profession as a journalist, and the family has endured tremendous hardship acclimating to a new country and culture.

The referral of the Vélez case to the Court is significant for a number of reasons. First, it presents a number of important legal issues that have yet to be fully explored in Inter-American jurisprudence, such as the nature of the special protections afforded to the family and children under Articles 17 and 19 of the Convention.  The challenging question of forced exile and how to properly address the harms associated with this ongoing violation is also squarely presented.

But perhaps the most significant issues raised have to do with the Convention’s protections of freedom of expression and related rights protecting journalists.  According to IHR Clinic Director Professor Arturo Carrillo, “Richard is lucky to be alive, which presents the Inter-American Court with a unique opportunity to ensure justice and redress for this persecuted journalist, as well as his family.  The fact that the Court will hear the case also means it is in a position to dispel the impunity that to this day, 15 years after the events at issue, protects the state agents responsible for the crimes committed.”

The IHR Clinic has been involved in the litigation of this case since it was submitted to the Commission in 2005.  Dozens of law students over the years have worked to defend Mr. Vélez and the Vélez family’s rights through a range of activities, including legal research and drafting of pleadings, as well as interviewing and counseling our clients.

Alexandra Sánchez (J.D. Candidate ’11), an IHR Clinic student currently working on the case said of the experience, “For me, this has been very fulfilling from an educational and professional perspective because it has really been about applying everything I have learned about international human rights law at GW, and gaining valuable knowledge about litigation strategy."

“As a member of the Vélez team, I have learned to work with other students and professors and collaborate on projects that best serve our client's needs," said IHR Clinic student Mark de Barros (J.D. Candidate ’12).  "This client-centered approach brings students closer to clients and encourages creative legal thought.  Having the opportunity to meet and work closely with the Vélez family has allowed us to forge a stronger relationship with them and open the door to a level of communication and trust vital to accurate and effective representation.”