Interview: Agenda 2003
Peace: The Colour Purple
Industrial: Long, Hot Summer
Solidarity: Workers Against War
Security: Howard And The Hoodlums
International: Industrial Warfare
History: Unions and the Vietnam War
Review: Eight Miles to Mowtown
Poetry: Return To Sender
Satire: CIA Recruits New Intake of Future Enemies
The Locker Room
A Call To Arms
A Tale of Two Malls
Talk Back Tom
On The Beach
Justice in Bogota
Bogotá is the capital of Columbia at the northern tip of South America. It lies kilometres above the sea in a country that is larger than Spain and France combined and has a population almost twice the size of Australia. Were it not for a civil war and a culture of kidnapping and violence, it would probably be a wealthy country and a sought after tourist destination. It has vast reserves of oil and a strong agricultural sector. It stretches from the Andes to two oceans. Its food is fascinating and its pre-Columbian art is extraordinary.
These benefits are largely of academic value alone. The tourist trade is tiny and many governments strongly advise their citizens not to travel here. For years leftist rebels have been fighting against the government and paramilitary forces. The government is backed by the United States and a massive military. Some fear that the war, which is fuelled by the massive cocaine trade, may last forever.
The war that they are fighting permeates everything in Bogotá. The military are everywhere. You are constantly searched. Meanwhile the killings and the kidnappings continue. While the US mourns the death of the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia, murders in the country of the same name are so commonplace that they hardly register. Kidnappings are estimated at the staggering figure of 3000 per year.
As a visitor the impact is immediate. For my first few days, my hands and feet poured with sweat despite the cold of the mountain climate. While I am no longer scared, I am still apprehensive. I long for my suburban life in Sydney and my family. And I am relatively safe. Hours from here sleep three Irishmen who are by no means safe. Charged with training the rebels, they have been in jail for over a year waiting for their case to come to a conclusion. The case is not big news here and to the extent that the Columbians know about it, most think the three guilty. Government officials have loudly proclaimed their guilt in advance of the verdict.
I am in Bogotá with a dozen or so Irish, American, Australian and English politicians, lawyers and journalists. We are here to observe the trial and, at least in terms of the observers, to try to ensure that the trial is fair. I´m not Irish. I have never been to Ireland. But I am lawyer and lawyers should believe that people should not be convicted before their guilt is determined by a fair trial.
While it is always dangerous to view another system through the prism of your own world and while the case is yet to conclude; it is difficult not to have concerns about the fairness of this trial. While Australian courts rely upon direct evidence of what people saw or heard, there seems to be no substantial restriction on what evidence is put before the court. Hearsay evidence, which would be rejected in Australia because of its unreliability and its failure to prove what it alleges, is regularly put before the Court. Much of the evidence is simply the opinion of the witnesses and proves nothing. Much of it is simply irrelevant. We are hampered by the lack of a Spanish interpreter, lack of ready access to transcript and witness documents. Our constraints are nothing compared to those of the defence lawyers. Lawyers are regularly killed in Columbia and one of the defence lawyers has gone into hiding overseas after his life was threatened.
I don´t hold great ambitions in this case. My presence is unlikely to change anything, but this trip has changed me. It has made me think again about the importance of the rights that exist in Australia, the rights to a presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial and to legal representation. Yet even these rights are under threat in Australia and few are willing to stand up for them. For the Australian Government, like other governments across the world, is saying that the rights of those accused of acts of terrorism, or even of knowledge of terrorism, should have many of these rights taken away. As I write, there are Australians in jail in Cuba who have not been presumed innocent, who have not been given a fair trial or legal representation. The Australian Government appears unfussed.
Lawyers and others have duty to stand up and be counted. For if this war on terror is a war to protect our freedom as our leaders say, it must include protecting those freedoms that I have written about; whether they be for the best or worst of us, for the most trivial or heinous of crimes and for the richest or the poorest of people and of countries.
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