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Colombian Human Rights Defenders Living in Fear
Front Line / Thursday 1 November 2007 / Español

Death squads continue to threaten the life of human rights defenders in Colombia, said Front Line today while a visit to the country is nearing its end. On 15 October, a woman defender from the Yira Castro lawyers collective received a note saying “You are going to die on December 24th”. This was the latest in a series of threatening phone calls, emails and a raid on the office to seize computers. The death squads are a continuation of the paramilitary groups which officially have been demobilized.

“The Colombian government continues to say that human rights defence equals guerrilla activity”, said Mary Lawlor, Director of Front Line. “Human rights defenders in Colombia provide independent, critical and well-documented scrutiny of government policy. This is crucial in a democratic society.”

A new technique to prevent human rights defenders working is the use of unfounded legal procedures against them. Dozens of human rights defenders have been accused of siding with guerrillas over the past years, and absolved after time-consuming procedures. The prosecution case is usually based only on unreliable statements by former guerrillas. In September, arrest warrants were issued against all but one of the board members of the ACVC (Peasant Association of the Cimitarra River Ralley), whose goal is to fight for a life of dignity of the peasants in the Cimitarra valley near Barrancabermeja. Four of them are now detained in Modelo prison in Bucaramanga.

Organisations representing victims are stepping up their demands for justice and reparation, including the return of land illegally expropriated by paramilitaries. This puts them in danger of persecution and assassination, as was the case in the murder of Yolanda Izquierdo in the northern city of Monteria this year. Mary Lawlor said: “The demobilisation of the paramilitary has been supported by the US and European governments. They therefore must also align themselves with the victims in their demand for the return of their land.”

The official Colombian government protection program is inefficient and lacks commitment. It frequently under-estimates risk levels. Delays of several years in the execution of measures under the programme are not uncommon. For example, bulletproof windows for the office of CREDHOS (Regional Corporation of the Defence of Human Rights) in Barrancabermeja were acknowledged as necessary by the government several years ago, but have still not been installed.

Increasingly, computers and documents are being stolen from the offices of human rights organizations. The issue should be taken seriously by the authorities and taken up by the human rights unit of the Attorney General’s Office.