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US congressional hearing highlights Colombia rights abuses

United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya told a congressional panel Tuesday of her continued concern over what she has called a ‘pattern of harassment and persecution against human rights defenders.’

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / October 21, 2009

Margaret Sekaggya, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, attends a news conference in Bogota September 18.

John Vizcaino/Reuters

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Bogotá, Colombia

Carmelo Agamez has spent all his political life on the left, fighting for social equality and defending human rights even when right-wing warlords ruled through torture and terror in his hometown of San Onofre. For daring to report abuses, he was threatened and harassed.

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So it was no small shock when he was accused last year of consorting with the paramilitary group he'd battled. Facing what he says are trumped-up charges, Mr. Agamez has spent the past 11 months in jail based on the testimony of a politician – whom he helped put in jail. He has still not been formally charged. "This is all an attempt to keep me quiet," he said in a phone interview from his jail cell.

Agamez's case was among those mentioned as an example of the dire situation of Colombian human rights defenders in testimony Tuesday before the US House Human Rights Commission.

Speaking before the panel, United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya, who visited Colombia in September, expressed her continued concern over what she has called a "pattern of harassment and persecution against human rights defenders" in Colombia, and challenged President Álvaro Uribe to "genuinely address" concerns for their safety.

That testimony did not help the prospects of a bilateral free-trade agreement that is key to Colombia's economic growth. Democrats and labor leaders have managed to stall a vote on the deal – negotiated by the Bush administration – by demanding more progress on the human rights situation in Colombia.

Mr. Uribe's conservative government rightly claims that it has made enormous strides in reducing the general level of violence in Colombia by negotiating the demobilization of more than 30,000 members of feared right-wing militias and routing leftist rebels through sustained operations of its US-backed military.

Andrew Hudson, a lawyer with the New-York based Human Rights First group says in an interview that murders, death threats, illegal surveillance by government intelligence agencies, arbitrary detentions, and baseless prosecutions nonetheless continue.

"Human rights defenders are constantly under threat [in Colombia] for speaking the truth," Rep. Jim McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, co-chairman of the commission, said in a phone interview after the hearing.

History of violence and intimidation

Rights activists and community organizers have long been among the primary targets of both right-wing paramilitary forces and leftist rebel armies in Colombia. Today, some 150 defenders have special protective measures offered by the government that can include bodyguards and bulletproof vehicles.

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