Panelists at the TrialWatch launch event discuss the project. Pictured from left to right are Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, George Clooney, Amal Clooney and Microsoft president Brad Smith. Photo: Beatrice Moritz

Saying that corrupt governments across the world are increasingly using their courtrooms to abuse citizens and silence dissidents, Amal and George Clooney on Thursday announced from a Columbia Law School stage a new global initiative aimed at monitoring trials, exposing abuses and rallying support for the victims.

Called “TrialWatch,” the Clooneys made clear that their project is ambitious. While tapping the resources of various project partners, including Microsoft, Columbia Law and the American Bar Association, they say they will fan out trained lawyer and nonlawyer “monitors” to courtrooms worldwide, including to remote corners of the globe, where it is believed that the risk runs high for sham and corrupt trials.

“TrialWatch aims to be the first comprehensive global program scrutinizing criminal trials,” stated the Clooney Foundation for Justice, through which the program is being run, in a news release that accompanied a 70-minute launch event held in a Columbia Law lecture hall.

The project will “focus on trials involving journalists, LGBTQ persons, women and girls, religious minorities, and human rights defenders,” the news release also said, highlighting groups that the Clooneys and others say are often targeted in proceedings.

As they walked onto the stage, the Clooneys came armed with a raft of examples of judicial system abuses from recent years, including firsthand stories involving clients of Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer.

Speaking into a microphone from behind a lectern, George Clooney, the actor and activist, said that in a large number of countries, women can be prosecuted for adultery or for acts not compatible with chastity.

He went on:

In El Salvador, a woman was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime of abortion, even though she’d had a miscarriage, he said.

In some 14 countries, a person can be executed for being gay or having same-sex relations.

In Iran, he said, a 31-year-old man was publicly hanged for committing the act of sodomy.

In some countries, a person can be put to death for blasphemy.

And he noted that journalists, seen by some authoritarian governments as dissidents, were often some of those facing the most risk. In a video about TrialWatch that was shown to the packed Columbia audience, it was stated that more than 250 journalists worldwide sat in jails in 2018, one of the highest totals in three decades.

From the same lectern, Amal Clooney spoke of clients such as an Al Jazeera journalist in Egypt confronted with fake news charges, and another journalist in a different country accused of “absurd financial crimes” after she put out journalism that angered the government.

“We need extensive monitoring, hard data and committed advocacy for this to change,” Amal Clooney said of judicial system abuses, her voice rising for emphasis.

Later, she noted that for years she had considered the idea of having monitors in corrupt courtrooms, and believed that various organizations may be the right fit for tackling the project. Then more recently, she simply decided that her and her husband’s justice organization, begun in 2016, would take it on.

The Clooneys’ thesis, as expressed by Amal Thursday, is that too often “we measure corruption by governments, but not courts,” even though many autocratic, authoritarian and other governments use judges and courts as a tool for silencing, abusing and scaring citizens.

“At the moment, it’s incredibly easy for governments to get away with this,” she said from the large stage, and “they are using trials” as a cover to lock away or murder their critics and the vulnerable.

“They don’t just throw them in jail,” she said, they use the courts.

The event itself featured the video, talks given by the Clooneys, and a panel discussion led by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that included the Clooneys, ABA president Bob Carlson, Microsoft president Brad Smith, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger and Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a former United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

Each of the represented organizations has partnered with the Clooneys on TrialWatch.

As Kristof kicked off the discussion, he asked whether the initiative could be effective in slowing down or stopping authoritarian leaders from using the courts to control and abuse citizens.

A journalist long focused on human rights, he was “skeptical,” he said, based on what he had seen during years of reporting on authoritarian leaders.

Much of the ensuing discussion focused on how TrialWatch intended to effect change by shining a light on corrupt trials and then publicly pressuring governments, judges, officials, banks and other businesses that are “complicit” in supporting the abusive regimes.

Answering Kristof, George Clooney pointed out that perhaps one can’t shame a corrupt government or leader “but you can shame good people who are complicit.”

“You can shame banks,” he said, sitting on a chair among the panelists, several of them leaning forward and waiting to speak.

Others on the panel said that when sanctions are placed on countries by other governments, it can be effective, although they said such sanctions are not used enough. Later, Amal Clooney spoke of individualized sanctions, such as targeting a corrupt judge so that he or she is not allowed to travel to objecting countries or to open a bank account in certain nations.

At another juncture, Amal Clooney thanked Smith, Microsoft’s president, for partnering on the project. Then she explained and touted the TrialWatch app that had been created by more than 20 Microsoft engineers, some working on it full time.

It “has a user interface to guide a monitor on what [he or she] needs to do” while inside the courtroom, such as asking the right questions, getting data and documents, and getting information uploaded to the cloud quickly, she said. From there, legal experts will assess the trial against human rights standards and produce a fairness report, she said.

Next, “where necessary and possible, [the report] will be followed up with legal advocacy to assist a defendant in pursuing remedies in regional or international human rights courts,” according to the Clooney Foundation news release. The release also said that “ultimately, the data that is gathered will populate a global justice index that measures states’ performance in this area.”

The app will allow “local language inputs” and use “AI Cognitive Services technologies to transcribe and translate content into English.”

Near the event’s close, as a crowd of Columbia Law students, professors and others looked on intently, al-Hussein, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, talked about how he believed “a trial is a window into the soul of a country.”

It tells others about how a country treats its own people, he explained.

“A trial is not here simply to prosecute the guilty, a trial is there to defend the innocent,” he said. And then he complained that too often leaders in countries with fair justice systems fail to speak out about the many abuses that happen elsewhere.

“TrialWatch is an effort to get them to be a little more courageous,” al-Hussein said, adding that when vulnerable people are attacked by sham legal processes “it shouldn’t just be the people on this stage and the people in this forum” who decide to act.