While many of our readers know that Colombian human rights defenders are frequently targeted and stigmatized by public threats and innuendo that call the very legitimacy of their work—and sometimes their personal integrity—into question, what’s less well understood is how often the voices of those denouncing human rights abuses are stifled by baseless investigations and prosecutions.
Human Rights First, a LAWG participating organization, recently released Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia: In the Dock and Under the Gun, which looks at the common patterns in several dozen cases against defenders and offers important recommendations for ending these sham legal proceedings. You can also view a video of the report's highlights, and one explaining a specific case.
According to the report, defenders—victims, journalists, lawyers, NGO staff, faith leaders, and the countless others who promote human rights—are typically charged with sedition or membership in a guerrilla organization (i.e. terrorism), oftentimes based on testimony from ex-combatants who, trying to get the best deal possible, tell prosecutors only what they want to hear. These cases, sensationalized by the press and some high-level Colombian government officials, reinforce a widely-held view in Colombia that groups and individuals who speak up for things like justice and peace are actually terrorists, sending an unmistakable signal to armed actors that these particular people are a threat and need to be eliminated.
At a late March briefing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the U.S. Congress, prize-winning independent journalist Hollman Morris, producer of the TV show Contravía that documents the war’s ravages on the rural population, eloquently described the challenges to freedom of expression in Colombia today. As well as describing a possible legal case against him, he described how journalists have endured statements by high-level government officials comparing them to terrorists, leading to a flood of email death threats and wiretapping by the government’s intelligence agency. “You can’t provide us in the morning with cars and bodyguards and in the evening call us terrorists,” he affirmed. “How can we, as journalists, live with this constant stigmatization and phone tapping—how can we carry out our work as journalists in Colombia?” As Morris summed it up, “How can you protect us? By granting us more democracy.”
Current cases of apparent baseless prosecutions documented in this report should be reviewed by the Prosecutor General’s Human Rights Unit in Bogotá and, if there is a lack of credible evidenced, the charges should be dismissed (click here to email a letter on baseless prosecutions to the Colombian attorney general). But even with this positive step, defenders’ reputations will remain tarnished with their physical safety in real jeopardy. To change this, there has to be systemic reform, along the lines of HRF’s recommendations, and an end to the debilitating idea that those promoting human rights are guerrillas. While changing such a pervasive, society-wide mentality could take many years, President Obama could start the conversation by making clear at the upcoming Summit of the Americas that the United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder, with words and action, with Colombian defenders who are “in the dock and under the gun.”