Colombian Human Rights Defenders Continue to Endure Threats, Attacks, Harassment and Illegal Surveillance under Santos Government

05-23-11

Despite welcome promises on human rights improvements by the Santos Administration that took office in August 2010, Colombia’s human rights defenders continue to endure threats, attacks, break-ins of their homes and offices, and illegal surveillance. Two recent incidents involving leading human rights defenders illustrate how dangerous the situation has become.

On May 10, U.S. citizen Kimberly Ann Stanton, wife of human rights lawyer Rafael Barrios of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), and former Washington Office on Latin America deputy director received in her cell phone voice mail a recording of a private conversation that she had had with Rafael Barrios a few days previously, while they were in the car provided for Mr. Barrios’ protection by the Colombian government’s protection program. The voice mail was preceded by numerous calls to her cell phone from a cell phone in Turbo, Antioquia.  Upon receiving the complaint, the Attorney General’s office examined the car and found a microphone in it.

On April 7, CCAJAR had returned some of the protection measures provided by the government, those administered by the intelligence agency DAS, because “we have learned that the protection program for CCAJAR was being used against us,” according to Mr. Barrios.   However, CCAJAR had kept the protection scheme provided for by the Ministry of Justice, including the car that Mr. Barrios was using for his protection, in which the microphone was subsequently found.

This event takes place in a very tense context due to the current work that CCAJAR is undertaking. On one hand, CCAJAR’s attorneys are representing victims before national courts in the case against DAS agents for illegal surveillance on civilians, including journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition leaders. On the other hand, CCAJAR also represents victims of human rights violations committed by high- ranking military officials. In this regard, just a few weeks ago, a sentence was issued convicting General Arias Cabrales to 35 years in prison for the forced disappearance of 11 people, all represented by CCAJAR, in the Palace of Justice case.

This same week the Bogotá home of prominent human right defender, Danilo Rueda, of the Inter-Church Commission of Justice and Peace (CIJP) was broken into, computer tampered with and two USBs stolen. The USBs contained sensitive information relating to the Operation Genesis case, a joint military and paramilitary operation carried out in the Chocó in 1996-7 whose Afro-descendant victims are represented by CIJP in a legal suit against retired General Rito Alejo del Rio.

Mr. Rueda and other CIJP staff are victims of the DAS illegal surveillance intelligence case. The break in is the latest of a series of troubling security incidents.

In April, CIJP staff was riding in Bogotá in armored cars provided by the government’s protection program when they were followed suspicious individuals. The trailing car proceeded to follow Mr. Rueda to his home. The car containing four men stopped in front of Mr. Rueda’s apartment, and one of the men rang his bell. When no one responded they left. On April 1, Gisela Cañas, a lawyer with CIJP, received a text message with the following death threat: “Listen Gisela bloody bitch…we know where you are and we will kill you for defending foolish things, we give you 48 hours to leave the country.”

Justice and Peace, a religious organization, provides legal and physical accompaniment to Afro-Colombian, indigenous and campesino and displaced communities and victims in various conflictive regions of Colombia including the Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Sucre and Putumayo. The break-in at Mr. Rueda’s home and a recent break in at Justice and Peace’s Curvaradó office are indicative that Mr. Rueda and staff are at very high risk of harm.

We join these human rights defenders and their organizations in calling on the Colombian government to: promptly investigate and prosecute these threats, break-ins, and illegal surveillance; improve protection measures as requested by the groups affected; and put an end, for once and for all, to all illegal surveillance. The Santos Administration must not only embrace the language of human rights, but also take effective action to guarantee the legitimate work of human rights defenders, essential for freedom of expression and a thriving democratic society. We join U.S. policymakers in welcoming the improved tone that Mr. Santos has brought to human rights issues, but the U.S government should insist upon concrete, demonstrable results in the investigation and prosecution of these cases, the strengthening of protection programs, and the dismantling of illegal surveillance schemes.

For more information, contact:

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Washington Office on Latin America, (202) 546-7070, cell (202) 489-1702, gsanchez@wola.org

Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group, lisah@lawg.org

Viviana Krsticevic, Center for Justice and International Law, vkrsticevic@cejil.org

Abigail Poe, Center for International Policy, abigail@ciponline.org