Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Hit man's folder holds details of rights lawyer

AP , BOGOTA, COLOMBIA

While searching the house of a suspected hit man, authorities discovered something that terrified human rights lawyer Alirio Uribe -- a folder containing his own pictures, his address and maps showing his various routes to work.

Rather than flee the country, Uribe obtained unarmed bodyguards and pressed on helping Colombians whose human rights have been violated in a nearly four-decade war.

Two years and many death threats later, major international human rights groups have recognized the lawyer's bravery, granting him the prestigious 2003 Martin Ennals Award.

"This award recognizes the work of Alirio Uribe in a country ... where the fight for human rights many times amounts to putting your own life on the line," government Human Rights Ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes said Friday night at an event celebrating Uribe's award.

Last year, 17 human rights workers were killed or disappeared, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights group. Dozens of others have fled the country after receiving death threats.

In a speech that brought much of the audience to tears, Uribe said it often pains him to describe to foreigners the role of Colombian human rights lawyers, because it underscores the atrocious human-rights situation in this South American country.

"It is difficult for me, to say that they are lawyers specialized in disappearances, lawyers specialized in dealing with massacres, in trying to release those who have been wrongly detained in jail," said Uribe, who now only leaves his house with personal escorts and travels in armored cars provided by the government.

Colombia's long-simmering civil war pits leftist rebels against government forces and illegal right-wing paramilitary groups. Civilians get caught in the middle, accused of sympathizing with one group or another. They are often executed by the outlawed warring groups. Most of the 3,500 Colombians who die every year in the conflict are civilians. Millions of others have been displaced by the violence.

Uribe has worked with Colombia's Jose Alvear Restrepo Collective for nearly 14 years on human rights cases, including the 1999 murder of political satirist Jaime Garzon and the massacre of 26 villagers in Chengue, Colombia, in 2001.

Paramilitary groups were blamed in both cases, as well as for the majority of the human rights violations in Colombia.

Dutch Ambassador Teunis Kamper, who for many years worked for Amnesty International alongside Martin Ennals, the namesake of the prize, hosted the Friday night event. Kamper likened the award to a Nobel prize for human rights work.

Uribe, who is not related to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, criticized the president for encouraging civilians to become government informants and chided international aid that focuses on beefing up the Colombian military.

"The help that Colombia needs is not more gasoline in the fire -- it's social development, and justice," he said, although he added that the government has every right to attack the rebels.

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