Human rights groups are urging the Obama administration to work to ensure that Colombia's government protects activists in the country. Rights organizations and Colombian activists told a U.S. congressional panel that the situation in Colombia has deteriorated, with activists facing increasing threats, including physical attacks and assassination.
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Kelly Nicholls, Executive Director of the U.S. Office on Colombia, a Washington-based non-government organization, referred to a surge of threats against human rights defenders.
Appearing before the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, she said Colombian government officials have made public statements designed to discredit human rights activists, while threats are virtually never investigated.
The United States, Nicholls says, must send a clear public message of support for human rights defenders. "Senior U.S. Government officials should continue to send a clear public message of support for human rights defenders, condemning any attempts by the Colombian government to stigmatize them," she said.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe recently announced the disbanding of the Administrative Security Department, a powerful presidential intelligence agency, which activists allege illegally and systematically spied on Colombian human rights defenders.
Reinaldo Villalba Vargas, a prominent Colombian human rights lawyer said the agency conducted a massive intelligence operation against human rights organizations, with a special task force assigned to obtain strategic intelligence to restrict and neutralize activities of organizations or persons opposing the government, discredit human rights organizations, and carry out psychological war.
Andrew Hudson represented Human Rights First, which is among the groups working to protect human rights activists in Colombia. "Colombian activists are subject to the full gamut of human rights violations, ranging from killings to torture, threats, misuse of state intelligence, systematic stigmatization, unfounded criminal proceedings, and impunity," he said.
Hudson welcomed President Uribe's statement in September voicing support for human rights activists. But he said the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress must exert more pressure.
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The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Colombia, Margaret Sekaggya, a lawyer from Uganda, said that during her visit to Colombia in September, President Uribe and other officials detailed steps taken to protect human rights protections.
But Sekaggya said that clearly much remains to be done. "The government should investigate and prosecute whoever is carrying out these threats, because it has become almost a culture in a country where there are threats, and death threats, to almost everybody, including Supreme Court judges," she said.
Sekaggya says illegal activities of the former presidential intelligence agency must be investigated, wiretaps of human rights defenders stopped, intelligence archives purged of information on activists, and new emerging paramilitary groups dismantled.
Also appearing before the commission was Gabriel Gonzalez, a Colombian student activist who was given a visa to accept a human rights award this week in New York.
Gonzalez faces charges in Colombia where authorities accused him of being a guerrilla leader. In 2007, the U.S. State Department called his prosecution an example of the Colombian government's attempts to harass human rights defenders.
In a written statement to the Lantos Human Rights panel, Colombia's ambassador to the United States Carolina Barco said her government recognizes the fundamental role played by human rights advocates in strengthening democracy, freedom, and the rule of law.
The ambassador referred to a range of steps aimed at enhancing protection of vulnerable segments of the population including human rights defenders saying President Uribe is fully committed to achieving security for every Colombian.