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Colombia Spies on Fellowship of Reconciliation and Other Human Rights Groups
Matthew Rothschild / Wednesday 24 December 2008

The government of Colombia has been busy spying on human rights groups.

Colombian government agencies have intercepted more than 150 e-mail accounts of nonviolent groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as Colombian NGOs, according to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Colombia was intercepting e-mails from members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation who were even in the United States, the group says.

Colombia’s police intelligence agency began the intercepts in December 2006 and continued to get them as recently as November 2008.

The Colombian NGOs that were monitored were: The Movement for Victims of States Crimes, the Colombian Network for Action on Free Trade, the Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, and the Yira Castro human rights organization.

This surveillance spells danger for members of these groups, since Colombian paramilitary squads, often working hand in glove with the military, have savagely persecuted human rights workers and labor organizers over the last several decades.

“Intercepting e-mails of nonviolent activists . . . puts at risk our field team and the communities we work with by suggesting that those working for peace and human rights are subversive, legitimate targets for right wing violence,” says John Lindsay-Poland, co-director of the Fellowship’s Latin America and the Caribbean program.

Now fourteen U.S. groups—including Across the Americas, Amnesty International USA, the Center for International Policy, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Forging Alliances North and South, Global Exchange, Human Rights First, the Jesuit Conference, the Latin American Working Group, School of the Americas Watch, the United Church of Christ, the U.S. Office on Colombia, the Washington Office on Latin America, and Witness for Peace—have written a letter to U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield urging him to prevail on Colombian authorities to “investigate, discipline, and prosecute all public officials involved in ordering the e-mail intercepts.”

In their letter, the U.S. groups also hold Washington accountable.

“The United States bears significant responsibility in this matter, given that the agencies involved in these actions—National Police, Defense Ministry, and Attorney General’s Office—are recipients of extensive U.S. assistance,” the letter states. For instance, in 2006, the State Department gave the police intelligence agency a $5 million contract to provide “Internet surveillance software,” the letter notes.

“As a result,” says the letter, “U.S. taxpayers were apparently paying for Colombian agencies to spy on legitimate U.S. and Colombian humanitarian organizations.”