Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Spurious Cases Against Human Rights Defenders

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Feb 26 2009 (IPS) - Six months after human rights defender Julio Avella was put behind bars, a prosecutor reviewing the case threw out the charges against him, which were based on the testimony of former guerrillas and police and army reports, on the grounds that they were “contradictory, incoherent, inconsistent and illogical.”

A report released this week by the U.S.-based organisation Human Rights First (HRF), “Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia: In the Dock and Under the Gun”, says the prosecutor found that Avella had been arrested merely because of his leftist ideology, without evidence of “rebellion” or any other crime.

Activists in civil war-torn Colombia are frequently accused of belonging to the leftwing guerrillas, or of slander or defamation, and are secretly investigated for months or years before being “illegally detained,” says the report.

In January 2008, all of the members of the board of directors of the Asociación Campesina del Valle del río Cimitarra (ACVC) – an organisation in central Colombia that advocates rural development and access to land by small farmers – were either under arrest or investigation. In April and May, the prosecutor reviewing the case released four of the group’s leaders, due to the “incoherent” testimony of witnesses.

But while their cases are based on the same testimony, Andrés Gil and Miguel González remain in prison accused of rebellion, and their trial is moving forward.

The ACVC says the investigation was launched without notifying the accused, in violation of Colombian law.

“The threat of political prosecution has a chilling effect, encouraging defenders to practice self-censorship and limit their activities,” says the HRF report.

“The steadfast investigation of spurious criminal complaints against defenders stands in stark contrast to the failure to investigate attacks, threats, and other forms of intimidation perpetrated against them or against civilians more generally,” says HRF, a New York City-based association formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which works on rights issues from a legal perspective.

“In a criminal justice system plagued by impunity, the tenacity with which Colombian prosecutors pursue human rights defenders for supposed crimes is striking,” it adds.

Human rights defenders are publicly smeared as “terrorists” and “kidnappers,” even before formal charges have been brought, says the report. “(S)uch behavior renders a fair trial impossible and breaches the presumption of innocence by which all prosecutors and judicial authorities must abide,” undermines activists’ credibility, and “puts the lives of defenders at grave risk by potentially encouraging attacks against” them, the report states.

Verdicts declaring their innocence do not generally make it into the news, and rights defenders released from prison frequently have to flee the country.

The cases are often based on “inadmissible intelligence files” and “spurious allegations by ex-guerrillas whose testimony has been coerced or coached by regional prosecutors,” the report continues. “Armed with such erroneous evidence, which is objectively inadequate to initiate an investigation, prosecutors and others publicly pre-judge the defendants, stigmatising defenders as terrorists.”

The prosecutor who overturned the arrest of Claudia Montoya, lawyer for the Young Person’s Network of Medellín in northwestern Colombia, found that “criminal charges against human rights defenders are often false and must be reviewed with caution.”

The report focuses on 32 specific cases – including those of 10 women – which are “merely a sample,” said its author, Andrew Hudson, senior associate responsible for Latin America in HRF’s human rights defenders programme.

“These aren’t isolated cases. There is a clear pattern here,” with one prosecutor initiating an investigation and another prosecutor or judge reviewing it and finding insufficient evidence, said Hudson

“They are arrested and investigated, until a reasonable judge finally says ‘enough’,” he said. However, “this is not proof that the justice system works, but of the magnitude of the problem, because the way things stand, it is the individual, not the system, who is guaranteeing rights,” he added.


In 2002, U.N. Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders Hina Jilani said in her report on Colombia that “These proceedings are part of a strategy to silence human rights defenders.”

A year ago, Peace Brigades International, which sends international volunteers to areas of conflict, providing protective accompaniment to human rights defenders, communities and social leaders threatened by political violence, said these practices are a form of repression. It also stated that they are not limited to Colombia, but that Mexico and Guatemala also persecute activists.

The spurious cases target a wide range of social sectors, from small farmers and even entire communities to the youth movement, professors, religious leaders, lawyers and musicians, Peace Brigades said.

“The key here is that we have documented the problem. There is irrefutable evidence of a pattern,” said Hudson.

“In the past, the government has told us these were isolated cases,” he added.

HRF believes the quickest solution is for the prosecutor general “to empower his Human Rights Unit in Bogotá to coordinate the review of all criminal investigations against human rights defenders” and “quickly vet the investigation(s) for compliance with due process standards”.

“All cases found to be specious should be closed immediately,” it states.

The U.S. government, which donates “millions of dollars” to the Human Rights Unit, should support this monitoring and reviewing, said Hudson, who added that this measure “could dissuade other spurious investigations.”

“Prosecutors should reject patently implausible witness testimony, refrain from influencing witness testimony and carefully evaluate witness testimony from ex-combatants who are receiving reintegration benefits” after demobilising, the HRF report says. “Prosecutors should also provide the accused with any evidence which may impeach the witness’s credibility.”

HRF recommends that the Colombian parliament take steps to “(c)larify that information may not be collected for arbitrary reasons, such as membership in a human rights organisation” and to “(p)rohibit the dissemination of information from intelligence reports”.

Hudson sees a connecting thread between the scandal over the information published Sunday by the Colombian magazine Semana, which showed that the DAS intelligence agency illegally eavesdropped on dissenters, including Supreme Court judges.

“The judicial police or military forces gather false information on human rights defenders and use it against them,” said Hudson.

“Intelligence files are not admissible as evidence in a penal process, according to Colombia’s criminal code,” because the information is not substantiated “and does not live up to the standards of due process,” he said.

Since 1997, Colombian governments have been making an effort to protect human rights defenders and others under threat, like members of the opposition and journalists.

In 2008 more than 10,000 people were receiving protection like bodyguards and armoured cars, including more than 2,000 trade unionists, over 500 human rights activists, and more than 200 journalists, as well as community leaders and even entire communities.

The problem is that the government, at the same time, “instigates against them,” said Gloria Flórez, head of Minga, a local human rights organisation.

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