On February 9, 2010, Alfredo Molano, a prominent Colombian journalist was cleared of charges of libel. Molano was charged with libel for publishing an article about a wealthy and well connected Colombian family. Molano’s innocence sends a clear message about the importance to uphold freedom of expression. Molano’s case was featured in our February 2009 report, In the Dock and Under the Gun: Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia.
In February 2010, Raul Figueroa Sarti, was absolved of the charges against him for copyright infringement. In 2006, Figueroa was sentenced to prison for publishing a photo on the cover of a book, supposedly without the permission of the photographer. In August 2009, Human Rights First engaged in advocacy on his behalf through an urgent action alert. Figueroa is a well-known, human rights-focused publisher in Guatemala regularly publishing groundbreaking works on human rights violations. Being cleared of charges, Figueroa is now free after spending 2 years under house arrest.
Congressional advocacy by Human Rights First resulted in the incorporation of our key policy priorities on Colombia and Guatemala in the 2010 Appropriations Law, signed by President Obama on December 16, 2009. The law includes some of our key recommendations on Colombia: for the first time, it includes conditions on U.S. aid to Colombia related to the persecution of human rights defenders. Furthermore, as we requested, the law earmarks $2 million for the Guatemalan police and Ministry of the Interior to fund specific protection programs for human rights defenders. As we had suggested, the law also includes $4 million for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and aid to the Guatemalan armed forces is contingent upon their cooperation with CICIG and the release of all military archives related to the internal armed conflict.
Andres Gil was released from prison in September almost three months after his colleague and ACVC co-founder, Miguel Gonzalez, was liberated (see below). HRF Senior Associate Andrew Hudson visited Gil in jail earlier this year and we mobilized more than 1,700 people to urge the Colombian government to close the malicious investigation against him. Gil was released when his trial extended past six months with no end in sight. While the trial continues, at least Gil is free for the time being.
On September 29, 2009, a Guatemalan judge dismissed all charges against LGBT activist Jorge Lopez. Human Rights First had engaged in extensive advocacy to close the baseless criminal investigation against him. Lopez had been charged with involvement in the assault of a sex worker ? a person who he had actively worked to protect. Prosecutors may still appeal, but we are confident that their petition will be denied and recognized as an attempt to discourage López?s human rights advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community.
In July 2009, Colombia’s Attorney General responded to clear evidence of inappropriate conduct by a prosecutor in the case against detained Colombian human rights defender Carmelo Agamez, and not only reassigned the case to a prosecutor in Bogota but also initiated a criminal investigation against the original prosecutor. Human Rights First has engaged in extensive advocacy around Agamez’s case, and the Attorney General specifically cited a letter by Human Rights First in his decision to re-assign the prosecutor. While Agamez remains unjustly detained, with a new prosecutor we are confident he will be released soon.
Human Rights First recognized that the first official meeting between President Obama and Colombian President Uribe in June 2009 would be a critical moment to influence and reshape US policy to Colombia to prioritize human rights. Through an influential Op-Ed in the Boston Globe, quotes in the Washington Post, the Hill and Colombian press, we shaped the public debate. Privately we were invited to brief Obama’s National Security Council ahead of the meeting. Our advocacy worked: President Obama raised most of our suggested talking points. He stated that the US will work to protect Colombian human rights defenders and expressed serious concerns about specific human rights issues we had urged him to raise – a welcome departure from President Bush’s uncritical tone and a signal that the Obama administration’s foreign policy to Colombia will prioritize human rights.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and UN Independent Expert Endorse Human Rights First’s Recommendations
Human Rights First briefed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions prior to their June 2009 visits to Guatemala and Colombia. After its mission to Guatemala, the IACHR issued a detailed press release incorporating our key policy priorities on impunity and defenders. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions issued a strong press release at the conclusion of his visit to Colombia, which focused attention on some of our recommended policy prescriptions regarding the stigmatization of defenders and the Colombian criminal justice system.
As part of Human Rights First’s longstanding support of Colombian defender Principe Gabriel Gonzalez, on June 2, 2009, we helped Gonzalez file a test case appeal with the Colombian Supreme Court against his detention and unjust prosecution. This appeal suspended the arrest warrant against him, allowing Gonzalez to come out of hiding and be reunited with friends and family. We obtained significant media coverage highlighting the importance and precedential value of Gonzalez’s case.
After 17 months of unjust detention, on June 10, 2009, a judge declared Miguel Gonzalez innocent and released him from prison. Gonzalez is the co-founder of a rural land rights association (ACVC) and had been the subject of a baseless criminal investigation accusing him of terrorism. Human Rights First visited his prison in March 2009 and highlighted his case as part of a pattern of baseless prosecutions against defenders in a recent report. On July 2, 2009, arrest warrants for seven other members of the ACVC were cancelled, a further result of Human Rights First’s advocacy on behalf of ACVC.
After six months of unjust detention, renowned Colombian human rights defender Martin Sandoval was released from jail in May 2009. Sandoval, President of the Permanent Committee of Human Rights in Arauca, had been falsely accused of rebellion. Human Rights First had engaged in extensive advocacy around the case, including writing a letter to the Colombian government calling for his release and including him in our February 2009 report, In the Dock and Under the Gun: Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia.
In Colombia, in May 2009, seven members of the army unit that killed Edwin Legarda, the husband of an Indigenous leader, were arrested. Human Rights First had engaged in extensive advocacy calling for an impartial investigation into the murder. We continue to pressure the Colombian government to ascertain whether the army deliberately shot Legarda’s car and whether his wife, renowned indigenous leader Aída Quilcué, was the intended target.
On April 8, 2009, a Colombian prosecutor closed a criminal investigation targeting renowned human rights activists Elkin Ramirez and Javier Giraldo. The two had been charged with the offence of false complaint for alleging that Colonel Nestor Ivan Duque Lopez had engaged in human rights violations against the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado in 2004. Human Rights First analyzed in detail the baseless nature of the investigations against Ramirez and Giraldo in our 2009 report In the Dock and Under the Gun: Baseless Prosecutions of Colombian Human Rights Defenders and called for the investigation to be closed in a 2009 press release and in a statement to the Human Rights Council.
In 2008 Guatemalan President Colom ordered the declassification of military archives relating to Guatemala?s 36-year civil war. When the defense ministry refused to abide by that order, Human Rights First adopted a wide-ranging campaign to pressure the defense ministry to release the archives. We generated thousands of letters and emails to the Guatemalan government, assisted members of the U.S. Congress to draft a letter to the new Attorney General, brought Guatemalan human rights activists to the United States to lobby policy-makers, focused media attention on the problem, and assisted two UN independent experts to raise the issue in their country visits during 2008. In early 2009 our actions paid off: the defense ministry released military archives relating to two of the worst massacres, which contained information on the responsibility of senior police and military officials.
Colombian human rights activist Carmelo Agamez has been detained since November 2008, charged him with belonging to a paramilitary group which he consistently denounced. Human Rights First has sought his release via an urgent action and insider advocacy with key U.S and Colombian government authorities. In January, the Colombian Inspector General accepted our request to appoint a Judicial Inspector to review the investigation and promised that the Inspector would “search for the truth” and uphold Agamez’s “fundamental rights”. Human Rights First hopes that the appointment of the Inspector is the first step in closing the specious criminal investigation against Agamez.
Since 2006 Human Rights First has called for an investigation into Operation Dragon. It was a plot, with some degree of State involvement, to assassinate 13 human rights defenders, including Berenice Celeyta. We have mobilized public action, met with senior Colombian government officials, and worked with members of U.S. Congress to express their concern. The advocacy helped influence the Colombian government. In October 2008 the Colombian Attorney-General took the significant step of opening a criminal investigation against several retired Army officers alleging involvement in the plot. We will continue to push for genuine accountability in this case.
As we called for in a recent alert, the Colombian government appointed a special prosecutor to expedite the criminal investigation into 23 employees of palm oil companies for illegal appropriation of land, forced displacement, and conspiracy to commit a crime in the Curvarado region. The unresolved nature of these crimes had lead to intimidation against Colombian human rights defenders, such as Abilio Pena, who were seeking to peacefully return the appropriated land to its rightful Afro-Colombian owners. Over 1,200 people took action on the alert and Human Rights First followed up directly with various Colombian governmental departments.
On March 27 2008, the Human Rights Council (HRC) decided to retain and strengthen the mandate of its expert on human rights defenders, as we had sought, by including an explicit focus on gender and women human rights defenders and encouraging states to follow up on the expert?s recommendations. Some states had sought to use the review of the mandate as an opportunity to weaken the role played by the expert. HRF engaged in a campaign with a coalition of NGOs which included a series letters to Geneva missions and a speech and statement to the HRC about the importance of the mandate. We also lobbied many states and organized a seminar showcasing the work of human rights defenders. The new expert, formally titled the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, is Margaret Sekaggya from Uganda.
The 2007 State Department Colombia Country Report on Human Rights Practices, released in March 2008, reflected key HRF concerns about human rights defenders Colombia. For example, it cited HRF in discussing the use of trumped charges to persecute defenders and the use of false terrorism rhetoric by government officials to endanger the lives of human rights defenders.
In March 2008, new Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom announced he would empower a Commission to review and declassify military archives which could shed light on the human rights violations committed by military officials during the country’s 36-year civil war. Human rights defenders in Guatemala have long fought for this declassification as a first step in prosecuting former military officials. HRF had urged President Colom to take decisive steps to prosecute former military leaders in a range of press releases, letters and reports.
On November 15, 2007, a Colombian paramilitary leader admitted that he had ordered the assassination of leading Colombian human rights lawyer Jose Humberto Torres. HRF led a rapid international campaign to obtain protective measures for Torres. HRF issued an alert and within a week had almost 1200 signatures on a petition to the Colombian government. HRF also sent the alert to various international NGOs and encouraged them to issue there own urgent actions. In the US, HRF coordinated a letter from NGOs to the Colombian government and used its contacts in the U.S. State Department and Colombian embassy to the US to raise the case with various Colombian institutions. Finally, we requested that the UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders issue an urgent appeal about the case to the Colombian government.
The advocacy efforts were successful and in less than two weeks from the start of the campaign, the Colombian government provided Torres with an armored car and bodyguards.
24-year-old Iranian women’s rights activist Delaram Ali’s prison sentence was stayed after seven international human rights organizations issued a statement calling for the sentence to be set aside. For participating in a peaceful rally in Tehran in June 2007 calling for equal rights for women, Ms. Ali was sentenced to 34 months in prison and 10 lashes. A stay order was issued on Saturday, November 10, 2007.
At our annual human rights defenders policy forum Human Rights First organized a meeting between Colombian HRD Berenice Celeyta and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour. Ms Arbour subsequently met with Colombian government officials where she mentioned the policy forum and the importance of Colombian officials publicly supporting HRDs. After these meetings, Colombian Vice-President Santos stated, “I am grateful for the participation of the human rights defenders’ ? and for their valuable contribution to the goal of making human rights valid in Colombia. I reiterate the will of the national Government to grant them all guarantees for the exercise of their work in Colombia. I condemn hostile actions against these organizations reflected in threats and office break-ins?”
After widespread advocacy by HRF, on August 8, 2007, the Colombian Attorney General agreed to move the unfounded criminal investigation against 2007 Baldwin Awardee Iván Cepeda. Iván has been unjustly charged with slander and libel for revealing the involvement of some Colombian politicians in human rights violations. HRF had sought the appointment of a Bogota-based prosecutor instead of a regional prosecutor. Prosecutors in Bogota are widely perceived as more independent and are more likely to close the case against Iván. In appointing the new prosecutor, the Attorney-General cited the letter, which HRF instigated, from 28 members of US Congress. HRF also engaged the State Department, White House, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders.
HRF’s long running campaign to establish an international commission of experts to help investigate and prosecute organized crime in Guatemala came to a successful culmination on August 1 2007. The Guatemalan Congress voted to establish the commission which will hopefully reduce levels of violence and create a safer environment for human rights defenders. HRF had advocated for its establishment with the U.S. government, Guatemalan government, the U.N., and other international human rights bodies. Just prior to the vote, HRF sent a petition with over 1,000 signatures to the Guatemala Congress urging it to establish the commission.
In June 2007, the US House of Representatives passed the annual aid bill (Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2008) which includes important developments for human rights defenders in Indonesia, Colombia, Guatemala and Egypt:
- On Indonesia, the bill includes some of our recommendations on military training and military financing. As a condition of funding, it requires that the State Department report on military reform and accountability, though it unfortunately does not require actual progress in these areas.
- On Colombia the bill also includes new conditions on aid namely that the Colombian army or demobilized paramilitaries are not killing or threatening human rights defenders. It also increases aid to the human rights defender protection program and other human rights initiatives.
- On Guatemala, military financing is conditioned on the approval by Guatemala of an international Commission to investigate illegal security organizations (CICIG). Illegal security organizations are frequently responsible for attacks against human rights defenders.
The bill has not yet been passed by the Senate, and we will continue to push for the most effective language possible.
In June 2007, Human Rights First awarded Colombian human rights defender Iván Cepedathe 2007 Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty. The Award recognizes the importance of Iván’s human rights work and that of other Colombian human rights defenders. Iván, like other human rights defenders, is subject to unjust criminal charges of slander and libel for exposing human rights violations. Human Rights First organized meetings for Iván with international organizations and U.S. policymakers in Washington and New York. Following those meetings, 28 members of the US Congress wrote to the Colombian Attorney General asking him to drop the charges against Iván.The letter received widespread media attention in Colombia. Read Iván’s letter of thanks for the advocacy measures taken on his behalf here.
After extensive advocacy work by Human Rights First, on June 22, 2007 the Council of Moscow’s Board of Attorneys rejected the Federal Registration Service’s request to disbar Karinna Moskalenko, Russia’s leading human rights lawyer. The President of the Board of Attorneys, Genry Reznik, stated that the Council’s decision was final and could not be appealed. Moskalenko stated, “Our complaints are always made against Russia but we are not against Russia. We are against the wrong actions of the Russian authorities. We are for Russia and Russia’s people and for improving its legal system.” The Board’s decision sets a favorable precedent for Moskalenko and other Russian human rights lawyers.
U.S. Congress and Inter-American Human Rights Commission Support International Commission in Guatemala
After Human Rights First met with key members of the US Congress in March and April, the House of Representatives wrote a letter to the Guatemalan Congress, and the Senate circulated a Resolution, stating their support for an International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). CICIG is an “innovative mechanism” which would investigate and promote prosecution of illegal armed groups which frequently attack human rights defenders. Also, after hearings supported and attended by Human Rights First, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the recent increase in attacks against Guatemalan human rights defenders and called for the establishment of CICIG.
After extensive advocacy work by Human Rights First, on May 1 2007, the US House of Representatives passed a Resolution co-sponsored by 100 Representatives condemning gender-based killings in Guatemala. Representative Solis in her floor speech specifically thanked Human Rights First for its support. The Resolution called on the US President and Secretary of State to condemn the harassment of human rights defenders who work with victims of gender-based violence. On the same day the Senate introduced a similar resolution which also sought US aid to establish an effective protection program for human rights defenders in Guatemala.
On April 27 2007, 30 members of Congress wrote to the Guatemala Attorney-General to ask that he “take action to prevent General Efrain Rios Montt and other former leaders from obtaining immunity… for alleged serious human rights violations.” The letter followed Congressional meetings Human Rights First organized for Guatemalan Human Rights Defender, Ruth del Valle. It was signed by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and concluded that the prosecution of violators of serious human rights would “combat impunity and therefore protect human rights defenders… who face threats and attacks due to their work.”
On April 4, 2007, Colombian human rights defender Gabriel Gonzalez was released from prison after a Judge in Bucaramanga, Santander department, acquitted him of all charges. The Judge found that the rebellion charges against Mr. Gonzalez, accusing him of being a terrorist, were baseless and relied on witness evidence and government reports which lacked impartiality and credibility. The judgment confirms that the charges against Mr. Gonzalez should never have been initiated.
Mr. Gonzalez’s release is the culmination of extensive advocacy by Human Rights First with the Colombian President, Vice-President, Attorney-General and Ambassador to the US as well as with President Bush, the State Department and UN human rights bodies.
In early June 2007, Mr. Gonzalez was granted protective measures by the Colombian government.
On April 10 there were two important victories in the case of murdered Indonesian defender Munir. Two and half years after he was fatally poisoned, Indonesian authorities named two new suspects and requested a court review of the acquittal of the only person tried to date. The visit of Munir’s wife Suciwati to the U.S. to receive an award from Human Rights First last October, and especially her briefing to Congress and meeting with a U.N. investigator, helped generate international attention and revive the police investigation.
More work is necessary to ensure that any new trials are credible and, above all, that those who planned and ordered the murder are held accountable.
Following public and private pressure from Human Rights First and a Congressional letter supported by hundreds of Defender Alert Network members, Colombia President Alvaro Uribe recently recognized the importance of human rights defenders stating: “Women and men human rights defenders are a vital part of the democratic life, because of their valor and experience helping the construction of a free and independent society in which all citizens can exercise their civil and political rights, free from threats and coercion.”
The President also stated that the US State Department NGO guidelines coincide with his government?s human rights policy. The NGO guidelines recognize the fundamental rights of human rights defenders.
President Bush publicly stated US support for an International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). CICIG would investigate and promote prosecution of attacks against human rights defenders. In a press release and letter to President Bush we urged him to publicly support CICIG during his trip to Guatemala. On March 12, President Bush stated, “[Guatemalan] President Berger is working with the United Nations to form an international commission to help investigate and prosecute organized crime in Guatemala, and the United States strongly supports this effort.”
HRF lobbying of UN and Guatemalan government officials culminated in the signing of an agreement to establish an international commission to investigate and promote the prosecution of illegal armed groups in Guatemala. Such groups are responsible for a significant proportion of attacks against human rights defenders. The Commission therefore has the potential to significantly improve the situation for human rights activists in Guatemala.
Following advocacy efforts by HRF on behalf of the Russian Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS), which was appealing its closure order, leading members of Congress sent President Putin a letter expressing concern over the Russian government’s attempts to close and silence the human rights group. In an ominous decision, the Russian Supreme Court denied the appeal, effectively shutting down RCFS.
Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), with whom HRF has collaborated closely on this case, issued a strong statement condemning the decision.
As Colombia came before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on January 25, 2007, to discuss its compliance with the UN convention on women’s equality (also named CEDAW), the Committee questioned the Colombian delegation on what it was to doing to prevent attacks against and protect women human rights defenders. Several of the questions and case examples stemmed directly from a report submitted to the committee by HRF, detailing the intimidation and violence faced by female human rights activists in Colombia.
Sixty-four members of Congress signed a bipartisan letter sponsored by Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Joseph Pitts (R-PA) in support of Colombian human rights defenders. The letter, addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, expresses concern about the surge in killings, disappearances and death threats against human rights activists in Colombia, and calls on the Colombian government to support and protect those who risk their lives to defend the rights of others.
Human Rights First was a central part of the effort to collect Congressional signatures to the letter, as were the hundreds of Defender Alert Network members who sent messages to their Representatives, urging them to sign.
Cuban independent journalist Oscar Mario Gonzalez Perez was released from prison on November 20, 2006, after being held for sixteen months without trial since he was arrested during a crackdown on civil society in July 2005. The week prior to his release, HRF launched a campaign calling for his freedom, in which over a thousand supporters sent emails and letters to the Cuban authorities on his behalf.
It now appears that the Indonesian police are not actively pursuing the defamation case filed against a team of lawyers based purely on documents submitted to the court in defense of their clients, who were accused of participating in a riot in Abepura, Papua. While the police decision is due in part to the weak legal basis for the complaint, it is likely that international pressure played an important role as well.