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Colombia: Government gives “green light” to attacks against human rights activists

In a new report released today (7 September) Amnesty International criticised the Colombian government for giving a “green light” to attacks against human rights defenders in the country –lawyers, NGOs and community activists - and called on the international community to support local activists more effectively.

The report - which includes numerous case studies - highlights the difficulties faced by scores of individuals and organisations in cities and in remote areas of Colombia who work to protect civilians and to end impunity.

Sofia Nordenmark, Amnesty International human rights defenders coordinator, said:

“Attacks against human rights activists in Colombia have a double purpose: they aim to silence individuals and prevent others from continuing with their work.

“Some individuals have received threats so regularly that they consider it part of their routine. Others have been forced to leave their communities.”

Iván Cepeda, a founding member of human rights organisation the Manuel Cepeda Foundation, received a death threat by e-mail on 30 April 2006. It was from a new paramilitary group called the New Generation of Peasant Self-Defence and read: “… until the last rifle belonging to the guerrillas, oppressors of the Colombian people, is put down we will continue in arms, combating the guerrillas utilising all the means we have at our disposal.'

Iván’s driver Embarth Barrios Guzmán reported a white truck lingering around his house on several occasions, its occupants covering their faces whenever anyone left the house. On 24 May 2006, he received a death threat over the telephone saying that they would kill him “for working for a guerrilla member”. On 25 May he again noted two unknown vehicles outside his house and managed to note their registration: the police confirmed that the registration corresponded to that of a vehicle belonging to a state body.

Cases received by Amnesty International also reveal that individual attacks, such as killings and threats, are part of a wider strategy to clamp down on reports of human rights violations and on the links between paramilitary groups and the army.

Sofia Nordenmark said:

“The official strategy against human rights campaigners seems to be three-fold: government authorities publicly question their legitimacy, mount unfounded legal processes and fail to bring to justice those who commit the attacks, even when evidence is widely available.

“Impunity faced by those who attack human rights activists is a dangerous weapon. It sends the message that civilians must refrain from demanding justice.'

In response to the demand for protection, the Colombian government has developed a number of programmes aimed at protecting individual human rights campaigners, trade unionists and journalists. The programmes include the provision of security guards, bullet-proof jackets and special transport. Hundreds have been benefiting from the programme.

Sofia Nordenmark said:

“Practical protection measures are not enough as they fail to create the basic conditions for human rights campaigners to work freely. The best way of protecting human rights defenders is by bringing to justice those who attack them.”

Amnesty International called on President Uribe to use his second term in office to tackle the endemic impunity for human rights violations by:

- Publicly recognising the legitimacy of human rights activists;

- Ensuring that those responsible for human rights violations are brought to justice;

- Preventing the use of unfounded criminal charges against human rights activists.

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