One of the Colombia’s leading human rights defenders, Ivan Cepeda, has been charged with slander and libel for publicly calling for the mayor of San Onofre to resign for alleged ties to paramilitary groups. Cepeda is the director of the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes, an umbrella organization for more than 200 Colombian human right organizations. In 1996, government forces assassinated his father, Manuel Cepeda, a leading leftist senator in Colombia. Ever since then Ivan Cepeda has worked to expose death squads in Colombia. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with Colombia. Twenty-nine members of Congress have written a letter to the attorney general of Colombia asking him to drop criminal charges against one of the country’s leading human rights defenders, Ivan Cepeda. Ivan Cepeda has been charged with slander and libel for publicly calling for the mayor of San Onofre to resign for alleged ties to paramilitary groups. The congressional letter said, in part, “We are concerned that the charges against Dr. Cepeda are politically motivated and form part of a broader pattern of instigating specious legal proceedings against Colombian human rights defenders in order to discredit them.”
Cepeda is the director of the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes, an umbrella group for more than 200 Colombian human rights groups. In ’96, government forces assassinated his father, Manuel Cepeda, a leading leftist senator in Colombia. Ever since, Ivan Cepeda has worked to expose death squads in Colombia.
In June, Human Rights First honored Cepeda by awarding him the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty. While he was in New York to receive the award, Ivan Cepeda joined us in our firehouse studio, along with Andrew Hudson an attorney at Human Rights First. I began the interview by asking him to tell us the story and to explain the criminal charges.
IVAN CEPEDA: [translated] Since 1994, we have taken a very strong campaign to ensure justice in the case of my father. 6,000 people have been assassinated in what we call a political genocide. As a result of this fight, we have been able to bring many members of the armed forces to jail, and we have been able to clear up the relations between paramilitary groups and members of the state.
After these events, we have been persecuted in many forms, threatened. Armed men have been developing activities against security state. And in 2000, we had to [inaudible] exile. We returned in 2004, and since then we live in apartments with blind windows, and we have to be in strong security measures, and we are accompanied by an international organization, Peace Brigades International.
In this last period, we are confronting a judicial proceeding that does not offer any guarantees of due process, because of accusations of slander and libel, because of having put into evidence some of the links between the state and paramilitary groups. The situation is a frequent occurring in relation to the members of the community in the human rights movement, and because of this, your organization has granted me with this distinguishment of the liberty medal.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the man you have accused, explain what happened last November. Talk about the mayor.
IVAN CEPEDA: [translated] We have developed a very strong action in the province of the country called Sucre. This province has been characterized by very close relationships between the political officers and paramilitary officers. More than 3,000 people have been assassinated and have been found in mass graves. They have been buried in mass graves. And for these reasons, we have accompanied the community to make a very close following of all the people who have been disappeared.
In the development of these actions, we have highlighted that the mayor in this community — we have denounced him as a fundamental ally in this process, through a collective action, and he was arrested by attorney general’s office.
As a consequence of all these actions, we have been threatened — a group of armed forces in the month of November. In that moment, my wife and I were not in the vehicle. But many people were looking for us. We know that it was an intimidation act. It was an attempt for enforced disappearance. The action that we have developed is a strategic action, and this is being called an action in the context of a situation which is being called parapolitics.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Ivan Cepeda, about the significance of the video that has just emerged of the president of Colombia shaking hands with — and explain who it is?
IVAN CEPEDA: [translated] President Uribe, during all his political career, has been implied in events that make a relation between him and paramilitary groups. He was the mayor of a province, Antioquia, where a security model, a private security model, was developed. There was some specific business [inaudible] called CONVIVIR, and they were the shields through which paramilitary links were developed.
In Uribe’s political campaign toward the presidency, about 40 people of his party had a meeting with paramilitary groups in a secret locality called Santa Fe, and there they signed an agreement to advance towards what they term the refoundation of the country.
Now, Uribe as president, he has named a series of functionaries who have been termed close allies. The president says that these events do not tie him individually and that he has no links to these groups. But all evidence shows that his surroundings, his friends, his closest friends and closest allies, the ministers, at least four of the ministers of his government, the chief of the Secret Intelligence Forces, all these people have been close allies of the paramilitary groups.
This video is more than just a proposition. It is evidence that he is meeting with paramilitaries. The government has said that the president cannot know who is every single person that he meets with, but the chief paramilitary was a person who was very known and very — and therefore would [inaudible] continue lying and continue saying that he does not know these people. And therefore, we will continue to see what he will say in the future about this.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Hudson, you’re an attorney with Human Rights First. You are helping to lead a campaign to protect Ivan Cepeda, to have the charges against him dropped. Explain what you’re doing.
ANDREW HUDSON: Well, the campaign we have to get the charges dropped against Ivan is just one part of our work, one part of our program. But what we’re doing at the moment is we’re asking that the attorney general in Colombia drop the charges against Ivan, because there’s absolutely no evidence to show that these charges are in fact real. What Ivan was doing, as we’ve heard, is he was bringing to light human rights violations that local politicians were committing. And, of course, that’s a fundamental right, a freedom of expression that any individual has, and it’s especially important right when someone, a human rights activist, is talking about a government official.
And so, what we’re saying is that, you know, due process dictates that these charges should have never been brought. Three wasn’t sufficient evidence. The prosecutor isn’t evaluating whether there’s sufficient evidence to justify these charges. So we’re asking that the charges be dropped. And we have a network of about 10,000 people, and we’ve been mobilizing that network to send emails and petitions to the attorney general. And we’ve also been meeting with the Colombian government at the Colombian Embassy here and with Colombian officials who have been coming to the U.S. I met last week with the Colombian human rights minister, and we raised these concerns directly with the Colombia government.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve given Ivan Cepeda an award.
ANDREW HUDSON: Absolutely. It’s not often that you can talk about good news in Colombia, especially in relation to human rights. So it’s wonderful for us to have Ivan here. This year we’ve given him the Roger Baldwin Award, which is a prestigious human rights award named after Roger Baldwin, who was the founder of the ACLU. Every two years, Human Rights First gives this award to a human rights activist from around the world who’s made an outstanding contribution to the promotion of human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re also working on the issue of Plan Colombia from the U.S. end. What are you calling for? And explain what Plan Colombia is.
ANDREW HUDSON: Sure. Well, Plan Colombia is the overall foreign aid package the U.S. gives to Colombia, and it’s an enormous aid package. It’s second only behind the aid that the U.S. gives to the Middle East. And what we’re — we had meetings last week with a number of members of Congress in Washington, and what we’re calling for is for the military aid to Colombia to be reduced and the aid in favor of social and economic measures be increased, and specifically we’re calling for more aid to go to the attorney general’s office to protect victims in the conflict in Colombia. We’ve specifically asking for more money for the Human Rights Defenders Protection Program, which protects human rights activists like Ivan who are at risk. And we’ve also asked for new conditions in the aid to Colombia, which would ensure that government forces aren’t attacking human rights activists, and that if they are, that would give the U.S. government an ability to say, “Well, we’re not going to give you all of this aid while you continue to persecute human rights activists.”
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Plan Colombia and what it means for your country, Ivan Cepeda?
IVAN CEPEDA: [translated] Plan Colombia has been implemented for six or seven years already, and a controversial item has been raised in relation to the results it has produced. For us, it is evident that in Colombia drug trafficking continues to occur, and it is a reality, which is so important and has even become more important as Plan Colombia was applied.
We have an internally displaced population, because of the application of the plan. In the frontier with Ecuador, we have 500,000 people who have been internally displaced. In great part, these are peasants, and these people have seen their crops — not only their coca plantations or their coca crops, but their subsistence crops, the crops that provide subsistence to them — being fumigated with chemical agents that are to eradicate the crops, coca crops. And we are seeing that this model, what it has done is to incentivate the war that is taking place in Colombia for the past four decades. We have a situation which is growing, deteriorating.
To the contrary, in the north, where paramilitary groups operate and have a strong presence, Plan Colombia has not taken hold. There are some regions where Plan Colombia has been applied in the north, but where there is a feudal system, Plan Colombia has not been applied.
What we believe is that this plan is not contributing to eradicating crops, coca crops, nor to look for peace, nor to break the links with drug trafficking. We are preoccupied and concerned that this model might be exported to other countries, such as Mexico, where there’s even conversations in relation to implementing a Plan Mexico, or in other Central American countries where it has become a destabilizing factor.
AMY GOODMAN: Colombian human rights defender Ivan Cepeda has returned to Colombia. He has received many death threats over the past. Andrew Hudson is with Human Rights First.