April 2015 Bar Bulletin
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Profile / Tom Antkowiak

Freedom Trailblazer

By Katherine Hedland Hansen


Traveling with his father on medical missions to places like Malawi and South Africa when he was a teenager, Tom Antkowiak developed a love of travel and a desire to help those suffering injustice abroad. Today, after years working for human rights organizations in Latin America, he is a professor at Seattle University School of Law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic and Latin America Program.

A tireless advocate for justice, he has intervened in high-profile human rights cases and is devoted to nurturing in his students the desire to right wrongs.

"Working shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are jailed and tortured for their beliefs and identities definitely revamps your perspective," Antkowiak said. "Our clients have suffered torture, wrongful conviction, arbitrary detention, discrimination, and illegal intrusion into ancestral lands."

Among his recent cases, he and students from his clinic secured the release of an innocent man after 12 years in a Mexican prison and even persuaded the Mexican government to pay him reparations. Antkowiak hopes for the same outcome for his client Nestora Salgado of Renton, an American citizen who has been imprisoned in the Mexican state of Guerrero for 20 months. Antkowiak is fighting for her release on many fronts, and is also trying to stop a massive canal from being built across ancestral lands in Nicaragua.

The clinic has also worked with the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, providing technical assistance to enable the Commission to work with the new African Court on Human Rights. Both provide human rights protection for the entire continent of Africa.

Antkowiak is modest about his work, but there is no denying the impact it has on the lives of people who otherwise might not be represented. "My work is much easier than that of all the public interest attorneys - whether in the U.S. or abroad - who face huge caseloads or security threats," he said.

But AnanĂ­as Laparra might still be languishing in prison if not for Antkowiak and his clinic students. He was freed after a petition Antkowiak filed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the hemisphere's primary human rights monitor, which ordered Mexico to improve Laparra's detention conditions and medical treatment. Antkowiak then leveraged the international decision against government authorities, which released him in 2012.

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