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Colombian activists still face killings and torture, despite progress - UN expert

18 September 2009 – Killings, torture, threats and arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders reportedly by both guerrillas and law officers persist in Colombia, despite the Government’s recent efforts to improve their lot, a United Nations expert said today.

“Much remains to be done to ensure a safe and conducive environment for human rights defenders,” Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Margaret Sekaggya said in a press release in Bogotá, the capital, at the end of a 12-day mission to the country, which has been wracked by violence between the Government, rebels, paramilitary groups and criminal gangs for over four decades.

Human rights activists, including journalists, trade unionists, magistrates, lawyers, students, women defenders, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders “have been killed, tortured, ill-treated, disappeared, threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, judicially harassed, under surveillance, forcibly displaced, forced into exile, or their offices have been raided and their files stolen, because of their legitimate work in upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms,” she added.

She noted that some violations are allegedly to be attributed to guerrillas, new illegal armed groups and paramilitary groups which human rights defenders say have not been dismantled. However, according to several sources, law enforcement authorities have committed violations or have shown complaisance with violations committed by private actors against defenders, she said.

Ms. Sekaggya, who serves in an unpaid independent capacity and reports to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, voiced particular concern at widespread threats from unknown authors against human rights defenders and their families, including Supreme Court judges, often in pamphlets, obituaries, emails, phone calls and text messages sent to them.

As a prime reason for the insecurity of human rights defenders, she cited their systematic stigmatization by Government officials as being or colluding with “terrorists” or “guerrillas.” She called for continued investigation by the Inspector General’s Office of statements by public officials which are greatly harmful to the work of rights defenders.

Noting the impunity for violations, she urged the Attorney General’s Office to investigate more thoroughly and prosecute those responsible. She also voiced concern at the surveillance and wiretapping of national and international rights defenders and the arbitrary arrests and sometimes massive detention of rights defenders and the unfounded criminal proceedings brought against them.

But Ms. Sekaggya commended the Government for the significant improvement in the overall security situation since 2002 and for designing policies and strategies for the protection of human rights defenders, thanking it for “its exemplary cooperation” throughout the mission.

She voiced “special satisfaction” that President Álvaro Uribe stated publicly after meeting her that the defense of human rights “is a necessary and legitimate action for democracy in a country like Colombia which is proud to be completely open to international scrutiny in this field.”

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