In the Dock and Under the Gun in Colombia

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET

It's been a rough week for law enforcement in Colombia. First, a senior domestic intelligence official was forced to resign following reports that his agency had illegally wiretapped judges, politicians, activists, and journalists - and then sold the information to criminal groups.

On February 24 my organization piled on by launching a report in Bogota on a related - and very dangerous - practice. In Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia: In the Dock and Under the Gun, Human Rights First documents 32 recent cases of unfounded prosecutions against human rights activists.

You can see a short video about the problem, here.

Throughout Colombia, officials target human rights defenders for prosecution based on evidence that is false, uncorroborated, or, even nonexistent. As the newspaper Semana summarized, in their comprehensive article on the report, "Whoever decides to work for the defense of human rights in Colombia could easily become the target of legal charges, in many cases without foundation." Authorities in Bogota have not addressed the widespread problem, and sometimes even encourage the practice by labeling human rights defenders as terrorists and guerrillas.
Many of these cases eventually get thrown out of court, but by then the damage is done. Ivan Cepeda, spokesman for the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, explained at the report launch that as a result of these proceedings "the credibility of human rights defenders is destroyed."
Human rights activists spend months or even years fighting the charges. Some undergo lengthy detentions, including several who remain in prison today. You can take action on one such case here.

What's more, in Colombia, even false charges can amount to a death sentence. Alfredo Correa de Andreis was a well known human rights activist and university professor. He was detained in June 2004 and accused of rebellion. Soon after a judge found the case to be baseless and released him, Alfredo was killed by presumed paramilitaries. As Correa's sister told the newspaper El Espectador:

They didn't kill Alfredo on Friday. They really killed him when they arrested him. That was the day they placed the tombstone over him.

According to my colleague Andrew Hudson, "Baseless prosecutions must be prevented before the damage is done. It is time for the Prosecutor General to create safeguards against corruption and overzealous prosecutors."