Colombian activists smeared by abuse of legal system

Colombian authorities have renewed criminal proceedings against two prominent and well-respected Colombian human rights activists. The Jesuit priest Father Javier Giraldo and Elkin Ramírez, a lawyer for the human rights NGO Corporación Jurídica Libertad, face charges of defamation (known as injuria, calumnia y falsa denuncia), a criminal offence in Colombia.

Both men have been active in denouncing the February 2005 massacre of eight members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Antioquia Department, and other human rights abuses committed over the years in the region. The Office of the Attorney General has implicated members of the security forces and paramilitary groups in the 2005 killings.

The criminal case against Javier Giraldo and Elkin Ramírez dates back to 2005. The then commander of the Carlos Bejarano Muñoz Engineer Batallion of the army’s XVII Brigade, Colonel Néstor Duque, made a formal accusation against the two men for defamation after they denounced the XVII Brigade for irregularities during the arrest of Peace Community members in 2004.

Soldiers from the XVII Brigade are among those implicated in the 2005 San José massacre. At the time of the killings, Colonel Duque was commander of the Carlos Bejarano Muñoz Engineer Batallion of the XVII Brigade.

“We fear that the decision to reopen the case is an attempt to smear the two men in order to undermine criminal investigations into the role of the XVII Brigade in the San José killings”, said Marcelo Pollack, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Americas.

“The authorities must once and for all stop abusing the country’s legal system to undermine the legitimate work of human rights defenders. By continuing to do so, they are putting defenders’ lives at risk and undermining the fight against impunity.”

Colombian human rights defenders and other activists, such as trade unionists, also continue to be threatened and killed because of their work denouncing human rights abuses. More than a dozen defenders and more than 46 trade unionists were killed in 2008 alone.

One of the latest victims is Álvaro Miguel Rivera Linares, who worked on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues and the rights of people with HIV/AIDS. His body was found bound and gagged in his apartment in the city of Cali on 6 March.

“It is ironic that defenders’ principal line of defence – the law and the judicial system – is so often misused to harass and intimidate such activists,” said Marcelo Pollack. “Instead of hounding defenders, the authorities should be seeking to better protect defenders from attack, and to bring those responsible to justice.

“One effective way of discouraging harassment and attacks is for the authorities, at the highest level, to publicly acknowledge the invaluable work carried out by human rights defenders. This would send a powerful message to all those seeking to violently undermine defenders’ work.”