Colombia: Personal and professional safety of Colombian Judge Maria Cristina Trejos | Joint letter

Re: Personal and professional safety of Colombian Judge Maria Cristina Trejos

To: President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón

From: Gail Davidson, Executive Director LRWC; Pascal Paradis, Executive Director LWBC

Date: 2011-05-24

Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) and Lawyers without Borders Canada (LWBC) are concerned for the personal and professional safety of Judge Maria Cristina Trejos following your recent comments concerning the conviction and sentencing of retired General Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales for his role in the enforced disappearance of 11 people in the 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice.

On April 30, 2011, you are reported to have stated that the decision was “unjust,” that there was no proof that General Cabrales had “any direct relationship with the alleged crimes committed during the taking of the Palace of Justice” and the conviction was not “healthy for the country.”

With all due respect, this public statement is contrary to the spirit of constitutional guarantees and international law principles that protect the independence of the judiciary in Colombia. The paramount duty to create and protect an independent and impartial judiciary and ensure universal access to that judiciary arises from several international instruments, including the American Convention on Human Rights, the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Specific state duties to safeguard the independent work of the judiciary are set out in the Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary. This important set of principles, which was approved by the UN General Assembly, states, among other things, that “[t]here shall not be any inappropriate or unwarranted interference with the judicial process, nor shall judicial decisions by the courts be subject to revision (art. 4).” For the proper functioning of the justice system, it is critically important both for justice to be done and for justice to be seen to be done. As a result, it is important for the public to understand that judges’ decisions are subject to being overturned on appeal, but not otherwise.

With all due respect, your statements of April 30, 2011 recall past instances of public interference by the Executive branch in the proper functioning of the administration of justice for which your predecessor, President Uribe Vélez, has been criticized. Our organizations recall that both during your inaugural speech of August 7, 2010 and during our August 27, 2010 meeting with your Vice-President, Angelino Garzon , your administration explicitly committed to respecting the independence of the judiciary in Colombia. We are concerned that your recent statements are inconsistent with these commitments.

It is, of course, also of particular importance to the integrity of the Colombian legal system that judges adjudicating politically sensitive cases are provided with special protections. Our organizations are concerned that your statements, in addition to failing to respect the independence of the judiciary, put the safety of Justice Trejos at risk. It is critically important that Colombian people understand that judges, particularly in such emblematic cases, must be protected by the state from direct or indirect threats or interference.

LRWC and LWBC therefore urge you to do the following:

  • abide by the international law standards, applicable to the Colombian legal system, that safeguard the independence of judges;
  • ensure that protective measures are issued to guarantee Justice Trejos’ safety as well as that of other judges ruling on high-profile cases;
  • use your position as President of Colombia to reinforce the principle of the independence of the judiciary, rather than undermining it;
  • issue a statement withdrawing the remarks about Judge Trejos, and articulating the importance of her and other judges having the respect and security necessary for them to act independently, not only independently of the parties to the litigation, but also from the state itself.

LRWC and LWBC trust that you will take the remedial measures suggested or such other measures as adequately ensure the personal and professional safety of Judge Trejos and restore public confidence in the role of the judiciary and in the particular role of Judge Trejos in the emblematic trial of the retired general.

In view of the importance of this matter, we request a response from you clarifying what remedial action you have taken. LRWC and LWBC await your response. Thank you for your attention to our concerns.