Reinaldo Villalba manages penal and national litigation for The José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective (CCAJAR), primarily criminal defence and the representation of victims of serious human rights violations. He has been vilified by the authorities and characterised as a defender of terrorism and an auxiliary of guerrilla forces, particularly since his work on a case implicating the former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. The case is based on allegations of witness tampering and fraud relating to crimes committed during the country’s five decade civil war.
‘Managing a case of this kind generates a huge potential for risk and danger and we are extremely aware of that.’ Reinaldo Villalba
Villalba has been a member of CCAJAR for 27 years. CCAJAR is a Colombian non-governmental human rights organisation, which aims to contribute to the fight against impunity and the construction of a just and equitable society. The organisation is recognised nationally and internationally for representing emblematic cases of human rights violations in Colombia, both within the Colombian justice system and before the Inter-American System of Human Rights. The high profile nature of the cases it takes on has exposed the organisation to sustained attacks, threats and intimidation since its foundation.
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that ‘Governments shall ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.’ As the principles turn 30 this year, the freedom for lawyers to work without fear of retribution is more important than ever.
"In relation to Santiago Uribe's trial, various witnesses have been murdered and yet there has been no understanding of what actually happened"
The “12 apostles” trial has seen Santiago Uribe charged with the crimes of aggravated homicide and aggravated criminal association as co-founder of a paramilitary group.
‘Senator Iván Cepeda Castro has had strangers lurking nearby his apartment and people who work with him have been attacked on social media by members of Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s political party.’
CCAJAR members have been subject to profiling and surveillance from parts of the Colombian National Army. This has been linked to the collective’s representation of victims of extrajudicial executions in cases against retired generals. According to Villalba, these tactics have been used by senior government officials since the organisation was founded, and throughout Uribe’s presidency.
‘He got his intelligence body to attack human rights defenders in general and specifically to attack the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective.’
During the quarantine, PBI spoke with Reynaldo Villalba about the illegal intelligence carried out by the Army, which was revealed by Semana magazine in May of 2020. During 2019, the activities of at least 130 journalists, political opposition members, unionists, and human rights defenders, including CCAJAR members, were the target of online surveillance. For Villalba, “it is no surprise what ended up happening with the military intelligence.” CCAJAR has been working with victims of the armed conflict for 40 years and “they were 40 years of constant persecution.”
Why did the Army resort to illegal intelligence? According to the lawyer, “these operations not only attempt to find out what we do, the victims we represent, the cases we work on, who we plan to bring before the justice system, and the principle incidents of impunity that we are going after, but they can also be a prelude to much more serious actions such as threats, smear campaigns, judicial setups and attempts against life.”
On December 7th 2020, Dina wan Sir Henry Brooke Award for Human Rights Defenders, hosted by PBI UK. The awards are an opportunity to celebrate the commitment of our beloved late patron Sir Henry Brooke, and the lawyers and other human rights defenders PBI's protects, to the rule of law. This is increasingly prescient as civil liberties and human rights lawyers come under increasing fire in the UK and all over the world.
“I receive this award and share it with all the organisations and human rights defenders in my country, and the thousands of victims of violence. Since the signing of the peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian State, more than 1050 defenders and social leaders have been killed. Over 250 ex-combatants have been killed... My country, it hurts to say, is a great cemetery.” Reinaldo Villalba