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.’

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

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.

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.

But they are still targeted. Last year, 11 rights activists were murdered, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists. By September of this year, nine defenders had been killed.

On Saturday, activist Islena Rey narrowly escaped death when members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, reportedly opened fire on the small boat she was traveling in after holding meetings with far-flung communities in Meta Province.

Threats are more common today than murders, however, and "more insidious forms of persecution have emerged," Mr. Hudson says. Investigations have shown that human rights defenders are routinely subjected to surveillance and their phone calls and e-mails are illegally intercepted. The headquarters of rights groups are frequently the target of mysterious burglaries in which only computers and memory sticks are stolen. And activists are prosecuted based on often-flimsy charges.

In Agamez's case, the evidence is so weak that, in July, then-Attorney General Mario Iguarán ordered that the case be transferred to Bogotá and that the regional prosecutor who ordered Agamez's arrest be investigated for corruption.

"Cases all over the country follow the same pattern, so one could say it is systematic," Hudson says.

Government's role in human rights abuse

Ms. Sekaggya, the UN rapporteur, noted that one of the main reasons for the insecurity of rights defenders is their stigmatization by senior government officials. Uribe and some of his closest aides have called into question the work of some human rights groups, saying their reports of rights abuses are politically motivated and aim to undermine his policies of "democratic security" and to demoralize government troops. In 2003, he said rights groups were "spokesmen for terrorism," and challenged them to stop "hiding their ideas behind human rights."

Foreign diplomats have privately urged Uribe to back away from such statements, and after meeting Sekaggya in September, he stated publicly that "the defense of human rights is a necessary and legitimate action."

But Antonio Yepes, of a Colombian rights group known as the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordinator, says those words weren't strong enough to dissuade different groups from targeting rights activists. "As long as they continue to identify the work of human rights defenders with subversion, we are going to be under attack," he says.

From his jail cell, Agamez says that will not stop him. "As soon as I'm out of jail, I will continue exposing what needs to be exposed," he says. "I am not intimidated by this."

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