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Illegal Wiretapping Continues in Colombia, U.N. Says

BOGOTÁ, Feb 28 2012 (IPS) - Illegal spying on human rights activists and journalists is still happening in Colombia, according to a new report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Juan Carlos Monge and Todd Howland presenting the report. Credit:OHCHR Colombia

In response to the allegation, Interior Minister Germán Vargas categorically stated: “It’s not true. There is no illegal wiretapping.”

“These allegations should be more precise, they should not be generalisations,” he added.

After a major scandal broke out in 2009 over wiretapping and harassment of Supreme Court magistrates, political dissidents, human rights defenders and reporters by the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), the domestic intelligence agency was officially closed in October 2011.

One month earlier, Jorge Noguera, director of DAS from 2002 to 2005, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in the 2004 murder of a prominent sociologist by far-right paramilitaries.

More recent DAS directors as well as over 40 DAS employees and several high-ranking officials of the government of rightwing president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) are currently under prosecution for illegal spying and harassment.

Nevertheless, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) states in its report for 2011, presented Monday Feb. 27 in Bogotá, that it continued receiving reports about illegal spying, especially from human rights defenders and journalists.

The OHCHR report on the situation of human rights in Colombia says “there has been uncorroborated information on the involvement of State agents, including members of civilian and military intelligence services, in illegal and clandestine operations.

“Most cases have not been resolved. If no significant progress is made in preventing, investigating and punishing these acts, it will be difficult to guarantee non-repetition,” it adds.

The report cites, for example, interception of emails and information theft against human rights defenders and journalists, even after DAS was closed down.

Virtually every United Nations report on Colombia since 1997 has recommended purging the country’s intelligence files, to guarantee respect for human rights. The latest report is no exception, which indicates that the purge has not been carried out.

The report recommends that “the process for updating, rectifying, annulling or keeping personal information in intelligence files should be regulated,” Juan Carlos Monge, deputy director of the OHCHR office in Colombia, said in a press conference in Bogotá Monday.

The Constitutional Court handed down a ruling to that effect in October.

The report says “The military intelligence services require public regulations to define and limit their actions. Their internal control mechanisms and public accountability need to be substantially strengthened, particularly in view of the increased allocation of military intelligence service resources planned” by the government of centre-right President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in August 2010.

The OHCHR report, which was also presented Monday in Geneva to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, recognises that progress has been made in some cases of interception of emails and surveillance. “Not progress that we can be totally satisfied with, but a step forward at least,” Monge said.

The main progress made on that front, according to the U.N. agency, was the adoption in mid-2011 of the “Intelligence Law”, which was drawn up with advice and observations from the OHCHR office in Colombia, “to ensure that it was compatible with international human rights standards,” Monge said.

The report explains that “The law defines the limits and purposes of intelligence in terms of respecting human rights and creates two commissions: one to assist in the purging of intelligence files and another, a congressional commission, to monitor intelligence activities.”

But, it adds, “Noteworthy challenges to the implementation of this law are the weak mandate of the congressional commission and the lack of effective internal control mechanisms.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay recommended that the office of the inspector general (Procuraduría General de la Nación) “take more in-depth preventive and disciplinary actions vis-à-vis the intelligence agencies” Monge said.

The office of the inspector general should take on a more active role in purging the intelligence files, the OHCHR report adds, especially given the fact that it was left in charge of the DAS files when the intelligence agency was shut down.

“The 2011 report indicates the importance of the procuraduría in the purge,” Todd Howland, the new director of the OHCHR office in Colombia, said in response to a question from IPS. “That recommendation is very important, because they can take on a role of civilian oversight with respect to the files and that process.”

In response to another question from IPS, and referring to the prosecutions in the DAS case, Monge said it is best in these cases to continue forward “with actions that vindicate the good use to which intelligence should be put.”

The OHCHR recommends that measures be adopted in order to comprehensively reform the intelligence services and “transform the institutional culture that led to the commission of human rights violations.”

It also says it is “necessary to protect public officials from the intelligence services who report abuses or refuse to comply with illegal requests.”

The espionage carried out by the DAS, which answered directly to Uribe, went across borders, targeted citizens from other countries, and purportedly diverted U.S. and British military aid.

In May 2011, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee urged Colombia to clarify and explain DAS’s spying activities and determine who was responsible for illegal espionage activities carried out in Europe, and against European citizens.

And the U.S. Congress ordered the State Department to review the use to which military aid to Colombia was put over the last decade. The aid totalled eight billion dollars and was channelled through the Plan Colombia military and counterinsurgency programme. (END)

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