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California Students Winning Human Rights Struggle

In a move which should make government's around the world blush with embarrassment, young law students at the University of California are taking on international human rights struggles and winning. John Howard reports.

A Tibetan monk looking for asylum, a Dominican schoolgirl who had been denied an education and rebuilding war-torn Bosnia, these are just some of the human rights struggles the law students are taking on.

"It totally puts the law into context," says Kirstin Carlson, a second year law student at Berkeley's Boalt Hall. " A problem with law school is you can become really myopic. You can get really good at contract law but you forget to ask yourself, How could this be? Or, what's justice?" she said.

So far, the students have helped refugee's from countries including Mexico, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Egypt Colombia, Bulgaria and El Salvador. Of the 18 asylum cases the students have handled, 17 decisions have so-far been handed down of which 16 were favourable.

The Boalt Hall International Human Rights Clinic was started in January 1998 by two law lecturers, Patty Blum and Laurel Fletcher. The idea was to go beyond the traditional teaching tools of simulated cases and take the program from classroom to courtroom.

"In a simulation class you can carefully control the facts for a pedagogic purpose. In a clinic setting, the pedagogic purpose is to learn how to be a lawyer by dealing with the real problems lawyers deal with," Fletcher says.

"Students aren't just simply thrown in and told 'Just learn how to do it.' Any document is reviewed countless times before it gets out of the office," she said.

The program has six to ten second and third-year students a semester who work under the close supervision of a practising lawyer.

In one international project, three students spent the summer in Bosnia along with three Bosnian law students - one Muslim, one Croat and one Serb.

The six interviewed judges about how effective the role of law has been in social reconstruction. They are now working on a report to the International Criminal Tribunal on how it can make its work more relevant.

One early case they handled was that of Tibetan monk, Jigdol Ngawang, who requested US asylum last year on the grounds he had been beaten, imprisoned and tortured under Chinese rule.

At aged 15, he joined other Buddhist monks and nuns who marched outside their temple in Tibet, demonstrating for Tibetan rights. The police arrived and although he escaped, he was arrested the next day.

In prison he said he was beaten, sharp bamboo sticks were shoved under his fingernails, and he was hanged from the prison ceiling by handcuffs as police demanded to know who was behind the demonstration. Five years later, he was released without explanation, but soon learned he was under surveillance and was likely to go back to prison.

He fled, spending two months crawling and walking across the Himalayan mountains and lived as an undocumented refugee in Nepal for five years before being able to manage passage to California.

In preparing his case, law student Anastasia Telesetsky, put together Ngawang's declaration of his experiences, corroborating news articles and his personal photographs and letters.

He is now working at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and attributes the law clinic to saving his future life. "Everday is a new revelation," he said.

The students say watching their classroom theory spring to life was an amazing experience, touching them in ways they didn't expect.

For my part, 21st-century generations, yet to be born, will surely be in good hands.

ENDS

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