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Colombia’s crackdown on impunity

Social Change

Neil Conway under a Creative Commons Licence

Last week, Colombia’s former intelligence chief Maria del Pilar Hurtado was sentenced to 14 years in prison for illegal wiretapping and abuse of authority, a decision which stands testimony to the determination of a lawyers’ collective called CCAJAR.

The men and women in the collective have spent more than 20 years battling corruption and impunity while defending victims of human rights abuses in Colombia, including the families of victims of extrajudicial killings, massacres and numerous disappearances.

CCAJAR, a long-term partner of Christian Aid, also fights cases involving alleged human rights violations by transnational companies against rural communities such as indigenous peoples, afro-Colombians and small-scale farmers.

Its work was seen by the government of Hurtado’s boss, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe (2002-10), to be tantamount to terrorist activity and a threat to national security. As a result, CCAJAR says it was systematically persecuted by Hurtado’s agency, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS).

The intimidation, harassment and threats, which had become commonplace, include an incident in 2005 where a bloody, decapitated doll was sent to CCAJAR member Soraya Gutierrez, mother of a young daughter. The note that came with it read: ‘You have a pretty daughter. Don’t sacrifice her.’

After Uribe stood down in 2010, and Hurtado sought asylum in Panama, investigations into the activity of the DAS suggested that the doll incident was the work of the intelligence agency.

Determined to prevent Hurtado from escaping justice, in 2012 CCAJAR members flew to Panama with members of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), to formally request Hurtado’s extradition.

During the visit, they presented Panamanian authorities with evidence that Hurtado was neither under threat nor subject to political persecution in Colombia. They argued that her status as a political exile should be rescinded so she could be tried.

CCAJAR was also instrumental in persuading Interpol to issue an arrest order, and in stirring up a public outcry to make her continued presence in Panama unsustainable.  

In January 2015 Hurtado was forced to return to Colombia. In April, she was  convicted of abuse of authority and public office, conspiracy to break the law, and ordering the illegal surveillance of opposition leaders, human rights leaders, journalists and even members of the Supreme Court.

Announcing the unanimous verdict, Judge Fernando Castro called her conduct ‘an arbitrary and unjust abuse of authority’.

The hope now is that she will reveal who ordered the operations in which DAS specialized, as these came from high-level public officials in the ex-President’s administration. Bernardo Moreno, Uribe’s chief of staff, was convicted with her and has been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, to be served at home. 

‘We want her safety guaranteed and for her to collaborate with the justice system and reveal the truth,’ said Luis Guillermo Perez, President of CCAJAR, after her conviction.

The case is a graphic illustration of one of the prime drivers of the internal armed conflict that has bedevilled Colombia – a political system that doesn’t shy away from using illegal methods, including violence, to preserve its power. 

During enquiries into the running of DAS under Hurtado, it was revealed that the agency collaborated with paramilitaries responsible for hundreds of extra-judicial killings. Such was the magnitude of the corruption uncovered that President Juan Manuel Santos, who replaced Uribe in 2010, decided to close DAS down in 2011.

But in what is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a human rights lawyer, CCAJAR says it is subjected to state surveillance, revealing suspicions that members of the state intelligence agency are once again illegally following their lawyers. 

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