Fri, Sep 08, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Amnesty slams Colombia on rights

GOVERNMENT HOSTILITY An Amnesty report says security forces and paramilitary groups have tried to undermine and discredit defenders of human rights


The first death threat arrived by e-mail -- a day after human rights activist Ivan Cepeda took aim at the government's poor record of defending victims of Colombia's violent civil war in an op-ed column for a national newspaper.

The cryptic message in April was signed by the New Generation of Self-Defense Peasants. Within weeks, the threats intensified and started arriving by phone. Despite a complaint to authorities, Cepeda says nothing has been done to uncover the perpetrators behind the threats.

"Unfortunately, in this line of work in Colombia, you get used to the risks," said Cepeda, whose father, a former leftist senator, was slain by paramilitary gunmen in 1994.

Colombia is one of the deadliest places on earth for human rights workers, journalists and labor leaders -- the result of four decades of unabated fighting between leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups and government forces.

In a report yesterday, Amnesty International says Colombia's government has contributed to the hostility. Echoing findings by the UN, the report highlights "a coordinated strategy by security forces and paramilitary groups" to undermine and discredit -- through threats and public rebuke -- the work of human rights defenders who are often a lone voice for millions of victims.

That campaign appears to start from the top. President Alvaro Uribe incensed the public when he lashed out against human rights groups in a 2003 speech, calling them "politickers for terrorism" and "communists in disguise." He later apologized.

"By not investigating threats, and discrediting their work publicly, the government is essentially giving a green light to their continued persecution," said Sofia Nordenmark, author of the Amnesty report.

Last year, 554 human rights workers received some sort of government protection, more than double the amount a few years ago, according to the interior ministry.

But more than bulletproof vests and armored vehicles, rights workers say they want political guarantees so that authorities will respect their work.

"The bigger problem is the culture of impunity that tolerates that threats are never solved," said Eduardo Carreno, of the advocacy group Lawyers Collective.

Almost all of those threatened have been groups and individuals critical of the government's negotiations with right-wing paramilitary groups, who are accused of thousands of atrocities against civilians. Under a 2003 peace deal with the government, leaders of the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia -- considered a foreign terrorist organization by the US -- will only receive minimal jail time for their crimes.

Weeks after Cepeda received his e-mail threat, several more rights groups also received threats. One was sent on May 20 to the Lawyer's Collective, warning the group would "be wiped off the face of the earth" if they didn't leave stop aiding communist guerrillas.

Security forces have also been implicated in acts of intimidation and arbitrary detentions. On Aug. 2, two police officers searched the offices of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, without a warrant.

The report comes amid concerns that the government is trying to restrict the watchdog authority of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose four-year mandate expires at the end of this month.

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