Daniel Prado is a prominent Colombian human rights lawyer. He began his career by providing legal support to the family members of victims of enforced disappearance in the early 1990s and currently works with the Colombian NGO the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP). Among other emblematic cases, Daniel represents victims of paramilitarism in the case of Los Doce Apóstoles (The Twelve Apostles), in which Santiago Uribe, brother of former President and Senator Alvaro Uribe Velez, stands accused of creating paramilitary groups responsible for more than 500 murders. Daniel’s involvement in this and other high-profile cases has seen him exposed to threats, stigmatization and harassment, as well as a public campaign of defamation and slander. Due to the high level of threats against him, in November 2017 the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights passed a sentence extending his protection measures. PBI has accompanied the CIJP since 1994.
On 13 November 2018, Daniel Prado was awarded one of the first ever Henry Brooke Awards for Human Rights Defenders, in recognition of his extraordinary courage and determination in pursuing justice for the oppressed and the marginalised.
On his work and its beneficiaries
My name is Daniel Prado Albarracín and I am a lawyer in defence of human rights. I have done my work first and foremost as a human rights defender, in collaboration with defenders’ organizations such as the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective (CCAJAR) and the Inter-church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP). In addition to that, I provided professional service to the Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (ASFADDES) several years ago.
The work I do is for people with few economic resources, usually victims of state security agencies, who would not otherwise have the means to access a lawyer. Usually they were victims of people with military political power; they are very vulnerable people. The population groups they come from are diverse, indigenous, displaced, some of the most vulnerable communities in the country. People linked to the conflict, relatives of people linked to the conflict, community leaders who have been persecuted and victims of violent acts such as enforced disappearance, torture or homicide.
On his inspirations as a human rights defender
My father was a person who instilled in us principles about the right way to act and the values that one should have. Later, I met a person, founder of the Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, the rector Eduardo Maña Mendoza, who dedicated himself to defending human rights. At that time I was a student of Economics at the National University. I had the pleasure of getting to know him and I admired him a lot. When I achieved my first sentence in defence of human rights, I dedicated it to him, telling him that what I had done in life was due to what he had taught. He was a person who had a lot of clarity and that cost him his life, but he was a person that blazed the trail in the defence of human rights. This is not a profession just to make a living but the contribution we can make to society.
On the case he is currently taking against Santiago Uribe Velez, brother of former President Álvaro Uribe
It regards his relationship with the paramilitary group known as the Twelve Apostles. Basically, in 2000 two students disappeared in Antioquia, where the Uribe Velez family is from. ASFADDES asked me to take the investigation, I began to look at the case, I interviewed relatives and I found that the disappearances were linked to an active paramilitary group in eastern Antioquia. We found that the brother and other family members of the governor of Antioquia were linked to this. Documents began to appear, such as a letter asking the paramilitary leader to support Alvaro Uribe's government campaign, ordered directly by a politician from the conservative party.
Later, ASFADDES asked me to take on an investigation called the Camp Massacre, which occurred in 1990, in which a family was killed and some children left alive in a really cruel way. There I also found that there was a relationship with a paramilitary group in the northeast of Antioquia, linked to the La Carolina estate owned by the Uribe Velez family. Reviewing the papers, I found the case of a person, Manuel Vicente Varela, who had been murdered inside the estate, but there was no record of death or death certificate. So the judge did not rule on this case because there was no proof that the guy had actually died. This motivated me to try to find more information on the subject, ask the authorities to open an investigation. At some point criminal politics was debated in the Congress, where we were able to demonstrate that there was strong involvement of some politicians in the formation of paramilitarism, specifically of this family with paramilitary groups. I am talking about before the CONVIVIR (Surveillance and Private Security Cooperatives) were created, which was the last generation of paramilitarism in Colombia. We found that this group from La Carolina was the genesis, from there began the experiment to create the CONVIVIR.
Then we received more reports and a person contacted me who said that he knew someone who had information about that topic. I sent him a questionnaire and he answered it very accurately and I said, I have to talk to this person to find out what he knows. I interviewed this person and it turns out that he was a police commander who collaborated with Uribe Velez's brother in the operations of the Twelve Apostles paramilitary group that was based on the La Carolina estate.
Once we were certain that all this information was correct and that this person had actually been a member of the police, we created a strategy so that this person could report what he knew and that his life would be guaranteed, because in Colombia they kill witnesses very easily. We decided to take him to declare among a group of jurists in Argentina, among them, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. There they received us, the report was prepared, and it was made public in Colombia with the request of the Argentine jurists to the Colombian authorities to investigate these facts.
After a while the prosecution reopened the case against Santiago Uribe Velez and the investigation began, new witnesses appeared. People came forward who decided to tell their story, such as Mr. Pinelo, who is a peasant who was tortured in that estate. Then it was possible for the Colombian authorities to arrest the brother of former President Uribe. He was detained for two years, the process is ongoing, we are in the trial phase. It has continued demonstrating the responsibility of this person in all the facts that have to do with this paramilitary group, which are around 509 homicides and disappeared persons.
As I know what happened in the southeast and north we also managed to cross-reference evidence between regions, because they show the same way of operating and there are many actors in common. The same company that provides the communication radios ... everything is fully documented and the moment to pronounce judgment is coming. That the judge has the ability and the integrity to pass judgment against this person is not easy, legally all the elements are there but in Colombia justice is also handled from the media side and from the political side. That is the risk with this case.
On the risks he faces for his work
I believe they want to threaten my life and this could be acted upon at any time because there is no serious policy on the part of the state to ensure the defence and the dignity of human rights defenders. The transcendence and importance of our role as overseers is not understood. If in Colombia there was the possibility that the state would assume the investigations for each one of the human rights violations, we would not be necessary. But the state does not understand and many times it is the one in charge of persecuting us. State agents are used to persecute us, to intercept our telephones, to persecute our relatives, to take photographs of them... this is a state policy that continues today.
The risks in Colombia are unstoppable. I have taken many cases with consequences for a lot of people. Personally I think that at some point something will happen – there is a 90% chance that it will happen because there are many people who are upset with the work that I have done in the defence of Human Rights. There is Alfonso Prados Vega who is spreading words against me, he has a lot of hatred and a lot of power, he is close to Uribe Velez. Uribe as ex-president and senator every so often is naming me, accusing me of things, alleging that I am a guerrilla, faithful lawyer of the mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Peto, a number of things that are not true. At any point they could make an attempt on my life.
On the support of his family
My family knows about the high-risk situations, we have tried to lead a normal life but the kids are always worrying that something could happen. However, they know that it was my life decision. If I didn’t do what I do, if I didn’t dedicate myself to the search for truth, justice and reparation, I would not be the person I am. I would have wasted all the time that I devoted to my career. They understand my commitment to this country – that it is very important to me as a human being that this country changes and if I can help then it doesn’t matter what could happen to me. I have had the total support of my children and the mother of my children because they know that it’s what I wanted to do, it is not that a company hired me for such services.
On the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
Unfortunately, I have to say that declarations of this type in Colombia are merely paper, because in Colombia they do not respect human rights or human rights defenders. We live in constant anxiety about what can happen to us. The fact that human rights defenders have to walk with bodyguards is absurd, but unfortunately our lives are being threatened. In Colombia there are many anonymous people, who do not have the possibility to do what I am doing. Here there are thousands of peasants and community leaders who have defended human rights and who have been murdered.
There is a peace process that at no time guarantees anyone's safety because people continue to be killed here. In these last 3 months there are already 60 or 70 people linked to the defence of human rights in the regions that have been murdered. They are selective deaths because it is a policy that seeks to disrupt social organisations.
On the role of PBI
PBI has given me accompaniment at different stages of my professional life. I was accompanied for a while as part of ASFADDES, then individually for a period during the Palace of Justice case and later at the request of the Lawyers’ Collective and CIJP. It has provided many benefits in terms of the security with which I can reach the regions because otherwise one is very vulnerable in a country as violent as Colombia. On a personal level it has an impact; if you go alone your attitude is different than if you feel the support of an international organization that is with you, and you know that if someone makes an attempt on your life or harasses you, the international accompaniment is there. It generates personal, psychological and physical security.
About ten years ago in Medellín, I had a hearing for the disappearance of two students from Antioquia. After a while we went out to take a public transport and some people from ASFADDES made a comment that there were two people who had said they could not do anything because I was with the accompaniment of Peace Brigades. Nothing could be done against me because they were there. In Colombia it is clear that this helps human rights defenders. A few days ago – because now I am involved in a process that is being carried out against the brother of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez for the formation of a paramilitary group – people tried to harass me while I was accompanied. But the presence gives one a lot of tranquility; we feel much calmer if we know that there are other people exposing their lives, we know that people are going to find it hard to attack us if there is international accompaniment.
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