Colombia: Spying on Human Rights Defenders

  (IPS) – "Coming to Colombia is to enter a world that is always intense, captivating and heart-wrenching at the same time," Susana Villarán, a former member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), wrote in April 2008.

At the time, the former Peruvian minister was unaware that on a 2005 trip to Colombia, as IACHR Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, she was declared a "target" of intelligence operations by the Special Strategic Intelligence Group known as the G3.

The G3 was set up by the Administrative Security Department (DAS), Colombia’s main intelligence agency, which answers to the president’s office; according to Colombian authorities it has since been dissolved.

In an Aug. 13 press release, the IACHR says the G3 "was created to monitor activities tied to the litigation of cases at the international level" – cases of serious human rights violations involving the Colombian state that are being considered by the Inter-American human rights system.

In February 2009, local magazine Semana revealed that the DAS had for years carried out illegal wiretap activities against opposition politicians, human rights defenders, journalists and even Supreme Court judges. It also carried out "offensive intelligence operations" – in other words, sabotage – against them.

The magazine also revealed that the DAS carried out wholesale destruction of intelligence files in January, reportedly under government orders.

Shortly afterwards, on Feb. 26, the IACHR expressed "concern" over these intelligence activities. On that occasion, the IACHR merely requested information from the state on the espionage against people the Commission itself had ordered be protected, while calling on it to investigate and punish those responsible.

It also cited its own Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, released in March 2006, which stated that the illegal interception of "correspondence and the telephone and electronic communications of human rights defenders… tends to encumber the defenders’ work, while also increasing the risks faced by these persons and by the victims they defend or the communities they accompany."

The IACHR now states that the files compiled by the G3 in its illegal wiretapping activities show that it "allegedly carried out an intelligence operation against an IACHR visit to the city of Valledupar in 2005, led by then-Commissioner and Rapporteur for Colombia Susana Villarán."

Valledupar, the capital of the northeastern province of Cesar, is one of the birthplaces of the far-right paramilitary militias led by drug lords, which have been active in Colombia’s armed conflict since the 1980s

The press release says that "According to the DAS file, the objective of this operation was ‘to identify the cases being studied by the Rapporteur and the testimony presented by nongovernmental organisations, as well as the lobbying these organisations are doing to pressure for a condemnation of the State.’"

Even four years later, it is difficult to get a statement about Villarán’s visit from the women’s groups that accompanied her, because they say it is dangerous to give information to the press.

The main aim of the rapporteur’s visit in late June 2005 was to assess the impact of the civil war on Colombian women and girls, including a specific focus on indigenous and black communities.

Villarán met with victims and victims’ families, civil society organisations and inter-governmental agencies involved in the defence and promotion of women’s rights.

In Valledupar, Villarán met with the Red de Mujeres del Caribe (Caribbean Women’s Network), with indigenous groups from the northern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, and other organisations involved in the Mesa Mujer y Conflicto Armado (Women and Armed Conflict in Colombia), an umbrella group made up of some 20 organisations.

The file also shows that the spies sent by the G3 informed their bosses that Villarán also met with the then provincial governor, the Red de Solidaridad Social (Social Solidarity Network) of the president’s office, and regional units of the Defensoría del Pueblo (the ombudsman’s office), among other authorities.

"These intelligence activities violate the State’s commitment to respect the privileges and immunities of representatives of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and to comply in good faith with the aim and purpose of the American Convention on Human Rights and other treaties of the inter-American system," reads the IACHR statement.

"These operations also seriously affect the work of human rights defenders in Colombia. The Commission has repeatedly expressed concern about the situation of defenders in that country, especially about accusations made by high-level officials that the defenders belong to guerrilla movements, and the use of intelligence mechanisms to monitor their activities," the communiqué adds.

"The Commission has indicated that States should refrain from any type of arbitrary or abusive interference in defenders’ correspondence or telephone and electronic communications, and that they should impose disciplinary and criminal sanctions on those who engage in such practices," says the IACHR.

On Jul. 16, the IACHR asked the Colombian state for "detailed information from the State of Colombia on all intelligence operations carried out with respect to the IACHR, the destination and use of the reports, and the investigations of the matter carried out by the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Nation and the Office of the Attorney General.

"In its reply, the State condemned the illegal activities of this intelligence organisation, which answers to the executive branch, and stressed its commitment to turn it into a ‘reliable and transparent’ entity. The State also offered to facilitate channels so the Commission can have access to information on the progress of the investigation," the IACHR added.

The attorney general’s office is pressing charges against several G3 members in connection with the illegal wiretapping scandal. It says that the G3 operated from DAS headquarters, and although it never appeared on the intelligence service’s organisational chart, all of the subdepartments were linked to that group.

The IACHR is urging the government of Álvaro Uribe to "not only to identify those responsible but also to conduct a thorough review of State intelligence agencies to ensure that these do not contravene international statutes for the protection of human rights. The Commission has also formally presented this information to the OAS Permanent Council and the Secretary General (José Miguel Insulza), so that any appropriate measures may be adopted."