New Trial Watchdog Aims To Expose Courtroom Abuses

By RJ Vogt | December 9, 2018, 8:02 PM EST

The American Bar Association is combining forces with Columbia Law School and the Clooney Foundation for Justice to monitor trials that pose a high risk of human rights violations, part of an effort to promote greater transparency in courtrooms around the world.

Unveiled last week, the initiative, called TrialWatch, will rely on a global cadre of trial monitors to report on legal proceedings. Legal experts will then analyze the information and grade trials based on international fair trial standards, eventually creating a Justice Index to rank countries and their court systems.

Bob Carlson, president of the ABA, told Law360 he believes trial monitoring will increase the fairness of cases in countries where due process isn't guaranteed.

"Without the belief that you have a fair trial, that you're not going to be targeted because you are a member of a particular group ... then the rule of law and access to justice don't exist," he said. "And from the ABA's standpoint, that's what we're about: making sure the rule of law exists around the world and that people are entitled to due process."

The project is the brainchild of the Clooney Foundation, which was established in late 2016 by human rights attorney Amal Clooney of Doughty Street Chambers and her movie-star husband George.

In a statement, Amal Clooney said courts are used as tools of oppression all over the world, allowing governments to get away too easily with imprisoning opposition figures, silencing critics and persecuting vulnerable groups.

"Trial monitoring will shine a light on these abuses and enable us to fight injustice when we see it," she said.

A visiting professor and senior fellow with Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute, Clooney has represented high-profile clients such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

She has also advocated for political prisoners, helping to secure a pardon for Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy when he was convicted on trumped-up charges in Egypt and challenging the conviction and sentencing of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar earlier this year.

Through TrialWatch, the Clooney Foundation will tap into the ABA's Center for Human Rights, a group that already observes trials and other proceedings. Its Justice Defenders program has sent independent monitors to countries like Cambodia, Cameroon and Venezuela in recent years.

Carlson said ABA will help collaborate on training TrialWatch observers, analyzing the reports they produce and grading the trials.

"We have a unique ability to bring together, frankly, the best legal people in the world to work on this project," he said.

Columbia Law School, with support from Microsoft, will contribute to the project by hosting a TrialWatch legal fellow. The fellow will work with students to conduct trial monitoring, help document trends in trial abuses, and engage with other academics to advance the effort. Students in the Columbia Law clinic will also be able to work on the project.

The law school's dean Gillian Lester in a statement called TrialWatch a "bold initiative" that is designed to "reform the administration of justice."

"A fair and open trial is a fundamental human right that must be protected throughout the world," Lester said.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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