On Nov. 3, as ex-president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe left a class he teaches at Georgetown University as a visiting scholar, a second-year law student named Charity Ryerson hid behind the corner of the Inter-Cultural Center, waiting for a student perched on a hill in front of her to signal that Uribe was about to pass.
Gliding through a hole in his security detail, Ryerson poked Uribe in the chest with a subpoena to appear for depositions in a civil suit accusing US coal giant Drummond Company of supporting Colombian paramilitaries. “No! No! No!” Uribe said, throwing his hands in the air, according to Ryerson who dropped the document at his feet as process servers often do when someone won’t accept a summons.
Uribe’s appointment as a visiting scholar has touched off a controversy at Georgetown. Many observers credit the U.S.-backed leader’s military offense against the FARC—Latin America’s longest lasting guerrilla army—with restoring a measure of security to a country mired in civil war and drugtrafficking violence for over half a century.
“Having such a distinguished world leader at Georgetown will further the important work of students and faculty engaging important global issues,” according to Georgeown’s president, John DeGioia
But a group of professors and students at Georgetown University who have banded together as the “Adiós Uribe Coalition” accuse the Colombian leader of involvement in human rights abuses ranging from support of paramilitaries to domestic espionage.
Such allegations have plagued the controversial Colombian politician for years, but conclusive evidence of Uribe’s alleged involvement in human rights abuses has not surfaced. But Washington-based attorney Terry Collingsworth has taken advantage of Uribe’s visiting scholar appointment to attempt to force a showdown.
Terry Collingsworth has dedicated much of the last few years to suing American multinational companies in U.S. civil court on the basis of an obscure, 18th-century law called the Alien Tort Claims Statute, which allows foreigners to sue U.S. citizens for damages over violations of international law or treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory.
Legal scholars believe lawmakers intended the Alient Tort Statute to provide a framework for resolving international trade disputes, but it fell out of use for over a century before pioneers including Collingsworth repurposed the law as a tool to bring multinational corporations to court to face allegations of human rights abuses. In a landmark case against Unocal Corporation on behalf of Burmese victims of forced labor, Collingsworth secured a favorable settlement after nine years of litigation.
Colombia has proven a breeding ground for the Alient Tort Claims lawsuits that Collingsworth specializes in. In addition to his latest case against Drummond — Collingsworth has filed at least three — he has represented Colombian plaintiffs in cases against the Coca-Cola Company, Dole and Chiquita.
The current case against Drummond was brought by the heirs to 113 Colombians murdered by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC, in Spanish), who suspected them of sympathizing with guerrillas. The AUC was Colombia’s largest rightwing paramilitary group, but had been largely demobilized by 2006, lured by government offers of light prison sentences in exchange for testifying about the group’s crimes.
Based largely on the testimony of demobilized paramilitary leaders, the 174-page complaint (.pdf) alleges that by 1999 Drummond began colluding with the AUC after leftist guerrillas targeted the company’s mining and transportation operations. Key witnesses include former paramilitary leaders Salvatore Mancuso, Rodrigo “Jorge 40” Tovar, Jhon Jairo Equivel Cuadrado, as well as Rafael García, a former official of Colombia’s intelligence service, known as the DAS.
Drummond has consistenly denied supporting any illegal groups in Colombia. The company’s public relations office declined to comment for this article.
Uribe’s visiting scholar position at Georgetown provided Collingsworth with a unique opportunity. The controversial ex-president of Colombia would visit Washington, where Collingsworth’s office is located, twice a semester for the next year to give lectures.
The complaint accuses Uribe of having a role in supporting paramilitaries tied to the murder of Colombian unionists, though Uribe is not a defendant in the case.
“When Colombian President Uribe was still the Governor of (the province of) Antioquia he implemented the plan to establish the government-registered front groups called ‘Convivirs’ to allow the AUC to collect government and private funds to support the military activities of the AUC,” the complaint alleges. “Further, the Convivirs provided legal status to the AUC and allowed the Colombian government to coordinate activities with it.”
According to Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, it remains to be seen whether or not the plaintiffs can prove the allegation that Uribe established the Convivirs as a front for the AUC. “Certainly paramilitaries benefitted from it,” Isacson said of the Convivirs in a telephone interview. “But there’s no smoking gun there that says this is a deal for the AUC.”
However, Isacson added that under Uribe, paramilitaries saw their influence grow. “Paramilitaries thrived as never before in Antioquia when Uribe was governor,” Isacson said.
A District of Columbia federal judge granted Collingsworth’s request on Oct. 26 to subpoena Uribe to appear for depositions. “Mr. Uribe has direct knowledge of several key issues in the case,” Collingsworth said in a press release.
Those issues, according to the statement, included government military support of Drummond mining facilities, the relationship and level of cooperation between the military and the AUC, and “the efforts by the Colombian government during Mr. Uribe’s tenure to suppress evidence of Drummond’s relationship to the AUC.”
Whatever Uribe may know about those issues, Collingsworth will have to wait to find out.
On Nov. 22 when Uribe was called to appear for depositions at Collingsworth’s office in Washington, he was visiting Honduras, where he received a congressional award for his contributions to democracy.
Uribe’s attorney, Gregory Craig — President Barack Obama’s former top White House lawyer — said in a telephone interview that the government of Colombia had invoked sovereign immunity for Uribe, a doctrine that allows government figures immunity from prosecution for tort claims for acts committed as part of their duties in office. Craig said he informed Collingsworth of the Colombian government’s decision, but did not contest the subpoena.
“Often when people claim sovereign immunity, they don’t appear. The whole purpose of claiming sovereign immunity is that they don’t have to,” said Bert Neuborne, a law professor at New York University.
Ignoring the subpoena will not necessarily bring disciplinary action against Uribe, Neuborne said. Collingsworth would have to file a motion to get a hearing first. “They won’t punish him for not appearing, without a hearing to determine whether he was obliged to appear.”
Collingsworth did not return several phone messages and emails seeking comment for this report.
Uribe’s decision not to appear did not surprise Ryerson. She said that prior to the Colombian government’s intervention, Uribe had claimed she assaulted him when serving him with the summons. “Walking into it, I knew they would try to charge me with assault,” Ryerson said, noting that a charge of assault can invalidate the service of a summons.
Ryerson also said that the Georgetown administration had attempted to prevent her from serving the summons at the university. “The plan was to serve him before a class he was teaching at 3:15,” Ryerson said. “As we tried to serve him the first time, campus police called backup because they wanted to help him to evade service of process. Administrators were also there telling us he couldn’t be served on campus.”
The Georgetown communications office would not answer questions about the administration or campus police’s actions on the day Ryerson served Uribe’s summons, but forwarded a press release saying “Georgetown is not a party to this suit. The University does not have a policy forbidding the service of process on its property, but does not, as a general matter, work with process servers to facilitate service.”
Uribe’s attorney declined to comment regarding the allegation of assault, as did the Georgetown University communications office and the campus police.
Whatever action Collingsworth plans to take regarding the Uribe subpoena, Ryerson continues to believe that Uribe will come to testify in Washington. “Eventually, he’s going to have to appear. It’s not clear when, but he will have to,” Ryerson said. “He’s been compelled by a court to do so.”