Last March, J. Soffiyah Elijah, deputy director of the HLS Criminal Justice Institute, found herself in a remote area of El Salvador, a country to which she’d never traveled, as an international observer helping guarantee the fairness of the hotly contested national elections.
The lengthy civil war was fresh on people’s minds, as were human rights abuses, says Elijah, adding, “The people who had suffered through that were looking at international observers and hoping our presence would make the elections fair, and that their votes would finally mean something.”
The rural area in which she served as an observer was a stronghold for the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA), and she and others were there to ensure that qualified voters were not turned away and that people were not paid to vote a certain way. They watched as the votes were counted. For safety reasons, the group was whisked away in a van back to the city as news began to trickle in from around the country that the candidate from the leftist FMLN party had won the presidential election.
Although the election was close – 51.3 to 48.7 percent – it was the first time ever that an FMLN candidate was elected as president, and Elijah says the celebrations were exuberant. “It was an amazing experience,” says Elijah, who was invited to be an election observer by the El Salvador government. “There was real energy in the country after the elections, and tremendous hope amongst the indigenous people and the poorer segments of society but also some middle class people, a sense of hope for real change. I’ve never seen anything like it. People were in the streets, the city buses were filled beyond capacity, and people were hanging on the sides of the buses.”
Although it was her first visit to El Salvador, Elijah’s interest in human rights, criminal justice and prison issues especially in nations with left-wing governments have taken her to Cuba many times, where she has visited prisons and observed trials, and to Venezuela three times. This summer, she visited Venezuela’s high court and observed the National Assembly as the guest of Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Fernando Ramón Vegas Torrealba, whom she’d met last spring at HLS when the two participated in a panel discussion, “Gender, Race & Participatory Democracy in Bolivarian Venezuela.” Elijah also met with the president’s commission against racism, whose members were interested in the issue of affirmative action in the US, and she observed an administrative hearing in a labor dispute.
“I was very impressed with the efforts to bring the legal system to the people, so they didn’t find it an intimidating place to which they didn’t have access,” says Elijah. “They tried to do that in so many different ways, starting with making all the walls out of glass inside the labor court so you can see into any courtroom or mediation room.” Parties to labor disputes are also required to attempt resolving their issues through mediation before a trial is scheduled, she adds. Her visit to Venezuela was featured in an article in the local newspaper, Diario Vea. Elijah, who has been with the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute for 10 years, has authored several articles and publications based on her research of criminal justice and prison systems, and she has represented numerous political prisoners and social activists in the U.S. over the past 18 years. During her travels to Cuba, she has conducted research on the country’s legal system, with a focus on its approach to criminal justice issues. Elijah was awarded a Revson Fellowship at Columbia University to continue research in her areas of interest.
Under Elijah’s leadership, HLS won the 2004 National Criminal Justice Trial Advocacy Competition, having placed second in the competition in 2003. Prior to joining HLS, she was on the faculty at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, where she served as Director and Supervising Attorney of the Defender Clinic, and previously as Director and Supervising Attorney of the Child Welfare Advocacy Fellowship Program. Before becoming a clinical instructor at CUNY, she was a Supervising Attorney at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS), defending indigent clients accused of crimes. She has also worked as a staff attorney for the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society.