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Inter-American court’s decision in Jineth Bedoya case could be transformational for Colombian journalists, says watchdog

Before the end of the year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I/A Court H.R.) is expected to announce its ruling in the case of journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima against the Colombian State. The case has grabbed the headlines of Colombian and international media due to the impact that the decision will likely have on the protection of freedom of expression and of women journalists in the region.

Bedoya Lima was the victim of abduction, torture, and sexual violence in May 2000 in retaliation for her journalistic work. At the time, the journalist was investigating the deaths of 26 inmates and an alleged arms trafficking inside the La Modelo prison in Bogotá.

Over the past 21 years, only three people have been sentenced for their participation in the crime. However, the entire criminal network, in which state agents are allegedly involved, has not been convicted or investigated.

In 2011, the journalist presented her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) after years of impunity for her crime. In May 2019, the IACHR decided to send the case to the I/A Court H.R. after considering that the Colombian State had not complied with the recommendations made in the 2019 merits report.

Periodista Jineth Bedoay Lima

Jineth Bedoya Lima durante el primer día de audiencia ante la Corte IDH 15 de marzo de 2021.

The hearing before the I/A Court H.R. planned for March 15, 16 and 17, 2021, was marked by scandal after representatives of the Colombian State left the hearings, alleging some of the magistrates were biased, which is why they challenged five of the six judges. The event caused significant outrage because the decision was made just after Bedoya Lima gave a detailed account of the crimes against her, which generated some messages of solidarity from the judges.

Although the hearing was suspended for a week, it was resumed with the presence of the State on March 22 and 23. A little over a month ago, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP, for its acronym in Spanish) and the Center for Justice and International Rights (Cejil), which are in charge of Bedoya Lima’s defense, delivered the final arguments to the I/A Court H.R. The decision is pending.

Last month, LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) spoke with Jonathan Bock, executive director of FLIP, about the importance of this case for journalists in the region and the impact it has in Colombia.

LatAm Journalism Review (LJR): What is the importance of this case reaching the I/A Court H.R. for journalists in the region in general, but also, for Colombians?

Jonathan Bock (JB): Without a doubt, this is a landmark case for the region because of three issues. One, because it can serve to generate standards that address issues of sexual violence at the regional level. Two, because it can also set an important precedent precisely as far as the reparation measures that go for this type of attack because a case like this has never come before the Court. And finally, because it is another case of freedom of expression, of aggressions – there were previous threats and the lack of diligence by the State to investigate previously – but, also, after, the responsibility there was on the part of state officials in what happened in Jineth’s case.

[…]

The Court has also understood it that way. And in one of the magistrates' comments, they said that it was the first time that there was a case with these characteristics and that at the regional level is very important, understanding that it is the highest court of human rights in the region.

LJR: Some weeks ago they delivered the final arguments. Was there a particular issue that was emphasized in those final arguments based on what was said by the State and by the judges?

JB: Yes. On the one hand, we reiterate the importance of the reparation measure that the closure of La Modelo prison would mean. Not only because it was the place where the events took place, but because the prison has been an epicenter of attacks on human rights for decades. And it’s where illegal alliances have been created between state agents and illegal groups, and the response of the State has been like "it is too expensive," without giving value to many other things.

Also, of course, in the negative attitude of the State to acknowledge what happened on the day of the events. Because the State's defense focused on saying "we recognize the threats after 2011 and we recognize that there was a revictimization of Jineth by calling her 12 times to retell her story and repeat the testimony." But, that is insufficient. Furthermore, that is to ignore the case itself, that this is a whole series and a succession of events that begin on May 25, 2000 and that later has had different chapters, but that these chapters cannot be separated. And ignoring, as the State did, what happened in those days and the days before, is not wanting to recognize anything at all. So, that was also emphasized.

LJR: When the Colombian State leaves the hearing, this clearly generates a lot of outrage. From your perspective as representatives of the victim, what do you think was the State's strategy in doing so? Do you think that the State really thought that the Court was going to suspend the hearing indefinitely and was going to stop with the judgment?

JB: Well, there are more questions and doubts than answers because precisely the fact that this hearing has caused an unprecedented reaction is a milestone for the way in which the State faces events, it is something that ends up generating many doubts. The first of these is: What was the strategy of the State? Because, in addition to this, it had sent other signals, perhaps more conciliatory signals or more to acquiesce to what could also be the responsibility of the State. Besides that, it is proven, right? In other words, the facts: Jineth's abduction, rape and torture are supported by evidence. So, all this trying to bring it down was a strategy that is very difficult to understand.

Jonathan Bock de la FLIP, Colombia. (Foto: Sebastián Comba / Cortesía)

Jonathan Bock, executive director of FLIP. (Photo: Sebastián Comba/ Courtesy)

It seems that it is a strategy of many different hands, where there are different interests, we understand. But, especially where there is no interest in wanting to acknowledge what happened on the one hand, but above all in not wanting to take advantage of the process so that this serves in some way as an act of transformation. And for this to also be a message that the State sends to its victims, where they could be allowed to heal, in some way, to obtain a more dignified space and dignified treatment for the victims.

It is highly surprising that it was just after Jineth's testimony, which was also a testimony that went into great detail, that it was a testimony that aroused the empathy of the magistrates. But, in no way that there was a partiality on their part, nor that they were prejudging, far from it, rather that there were comments of solidarity and dignity in front of her, and that this is what has aroused this anger on the part of the State and this tantrum, I insist that it leaves many questions and nothing very clear.

And then after the stick, they try the carrot and they try to say that we are going to reconcile, but we reconcile outside the Court, which was completely absurd. We understand and Jineth understands that it is the court where this case has to be taken. And what the State offers, as I said before, is completely minimal and insignificant compared to the entire magnitude of the process.

LJR: Why do you think this case of Jineth Bedoya is so sensitive for the Colombian State? Perhaps because of the implications that it would have for Colombia in other cases?

JB: Well, yes. It is precisely what it means for it to be a landmark case, which would precisely address issues of sexual violence for the first time. Understanding that sexual violence has been a constant violation in recent decades in Colombia and closely related to the conflict. And also open this door to this issue, which has been something that the State has not wanted to enter – how to understand, measure or accept any responsibility in this regard – because I think it can be significant as well.

I think obviously that because it is a gender issue, because of all the peculiarities of freedom of expression, journalistic work, it is key, right? So, I think that's why maybe it found such an aggressive response in the strategy that later it had to try, in the face of the media, to alleviate a little, but in the process it became clear that it was an extremely aggressive strategy.

LJR: In case the Court does not rule in favor of Jineth, although several experts have said that it will not be the case, what would happen in legal terms?

JB: This is the end. And it should also have a closure after 20 years. And this is the maximum bet, let's say. And there I insist on a point that the experts on reparation and non-repetition measures spoke about and that is the important thing about the process itself. Beyond the ruling and the decisions – and if the State complies with it, does not comply, it complies better or worse – the process should be used to be transformative, as I was saying before.

And I stay with that because many times I believe that the Colombian State has precisely sinned by neglecting this very important aspect and not paying attention to the dignity that these spaces and that time should have.

You have to understand that it is 20 years! And then the State continues without wanting to give a little to that space and attending to it in that way.

LJR: What's coming in the next months? Is there something important to add?

JB: I think that now what is coming – the allegations have already been presented – we would hope that between October and November of this year there will be a final decision. This aggressive attitude is worrying, which gives rise to the understanding that the State is not going to receive the Court's ruling in a good way. And then it would be to continue to play a strategy that is completely, I think, wrong. And it would place Colombia in a very, very negative space in the face of its responsibility throughout this process.

I think then that what is going to happen in the coming months, it is important that Colombia define its policy and strategy in this type of case. And if it is more like a myopic look and of just one moment, or if it finally agrees to look in the mirror and acknowledge everything that has happened.

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