Death threats haunt human rights activists in Colombia They call on government to stop disparaging remarks


BOGOTA, Colombia -- For more than a decade, Colombian human rights activists have denounced the killings of leftist politicians, union leaders, journalists and peasants caught in the middle of the country's long civil war.

Now they are denouncing the assassinations of their colleagues -- and taking precautions because of threats to their own lives.

"We have become the objects of our own work," said Agustin Jimenez, a lawyer with the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, a public-interest law firm. "We have gone from protecting others to protecting ourselves."

Last year, 17 human rights activists were killed and two dozen were threatened, according to the Colombian Jurists' Commission. This year, high-profile killings in late February and mid-April have made it clear that the killings have not stopped.

Police believe that the same hit squad of two men and a woman posing as journalists killed Jesus Maria Valle, chairman of the Human Rights Committee for Antioquia, a war-torn northern province, and Eduardo Umana, a lawyer who defended political prisoners, including guerrillas.

Beyond that, the authorities have no leads, said Luis Enrique Montenegro, Colombia's head of police intelligence.

"These are not isolated incidents," said Jorge Rojas, director of the group Consultants for Human Rights and Displaced Persons.

"There is a message of terror and fear that these murders have generated. Above all, the message is, 'You are not safe, even in your office or at home,' because that is where they have [killed] people."

By posing as journalists, the assassins have also made activists cautious about meeting with reporters, who had been an important outlet for their views.

After Umana's killing last month, President Ernesto Samper met with human rights groups to offer them a $1.2 million security program that provided everything from cellular telephones and steel doors on their offices to bulletproof vests, self-defense courses and bodyguards.

Some organizations accepted the steel doors, but the idea of bodyguards appalled activists.

"Arming ourselves is not compatible with our existence as defenders of human rights," Rojas said.

The activists say what they really want is for the government to tone down the rhetoric of politicians and top officials in the armed forces. The military routinely accuses human rights groups of overlooking abuses committed by insurgents and focusing on the army's mistreatment of civilians.

Further, activists say, intelligence reports have linked lawyers who defend guerrillas to the insurgent movements, which are financed by a combination of kidnapping ransoms, extortion and "taxes" on cocaine and heroin production.

Military officials have accused Jimenez's organization of taking money obtained through guerrilla kidnappings, he said.

In reality, he said, the lawyers are funded by donations from Swiss, Swedish, German and British civic groups plus contingency fees on settlements they win for peasants displaced by combat.

The activists believe that disinformation encourages attacks by extremists, and the human rights activists who met with Samper demanded that he order a review of intelligence files to eliminate unproven references to their organizations as subversive.

They also insisted that Samper enforce a directive, issued last year, that cautions both armed forces and government officials not to make disparaging remarks about human rights activists.

Beyond that, they urged him to use the last few months of his term to begin improving the climate for human rights activists.

"The government is responsible by action or omission," Rojas said. "While it would be absurd to say that there is a government plan to eliminate people, one cannot say that the government is not involved. The government's duty is to protect all Colombians."

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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