Activists alarmed at new Anti-Terrorism Law.

Colombia's new anti-terrorism law will undermine what little progress has been made towards preventing forced disappearances of people by the armed forces, and will weaken the independence of the courts and due process, according to human rights activists.

Rocío Bautista, president of the Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (ASFADDES), told IPS that the anti-terrorism legislation passed this month by Congress constitutes ''a grave setback in terms of legislation on forced disappearance.''

In 2000, after 12 years of efforts by human rights groups and the families of the disappeared, Congress finally passed law 589, which classifies forced disappearance as a criminal offence and creates mechanisms for its prevention and eradication -- achievements that will be weakened by the new law, said Bautista.

Under the anti-terrorism law approved by the Senate on Dec. 10, the armed forces will be able to arrest people for up to 36 hours, search homes, and spy on private communications without a legal warrant or judicial oversight.

The new legislation also foresees the creation of a new registry containing private information on all Colombians, to which military authorities will have access. In addition, the armed forces will be given police powers, including the authority to interrogate suspects.

Bautista said the new law was passed against the recommendations of international human rights bodies, which expressed their opposition to the granting of police powers to the military.

On Nov. 18, the United Nations Committee Against Torture called on the Colombian government of right-wing President Alvaro Uribe to reconsider the possibility of adopting measures that would grant judicial police functions to the military and allow lengthy interrogations and arrests of suspects without a legal order or judicial oversight.

The Committee Against Torture, tasked with preventing the practices prohibited by the Convention Against Torture, of which Colombia is a signatory, set a one-year deadline for the state to report on compliance with its recommendation.

According to ASFADDES, the new law could fuel an increase in forced disappearances, and will limit, ''in a grave manner, the mechanisms and guarantees in place for victims and their families.''

The problem, says the human rights group, is that ''the very same state agents that could be involved in alleged human rights abuses will be in charge of carrying out the investigations, and collecting and handling evidence.''

ASFADDES reports that 6,340 cases of forced disappearance were committed, mainly by members of the armed forces, between 1979 and May 2003.

Gustavo Gallón, president of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), said the enactment of the new law is disturbing at a time when ''the polarisation has reached the extent that the Colombian government is stigmatising not only ordinary people opposed to its policies,'' but leading international authorities on human rights as well.

Gallón was specifically referring to an incident that occurred earlier this year, when then-defence minister Marta Ramírez said U.N. Special Representative to Colombia James LeMoyne had ''defended the terrorists.''

That remark came after Lemoyne told reporters that ''the backbone of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- the main guerrilla group) consists of between 1,000 and 1,500 ideologically committed men and women who have been fighting for 15 to 20 years''.

The CCJ has documented a number of arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders, trade unionists and other social activists.

According to the CCJ, the common denominator in such cases is that despite the joint efforts of the security forces and the office of the public prosecutor, no evidence is found against the detainees to press charges, nor is there any sign of a serious judicial investigation of their cases.

Furthermore, many of the arrests are carried out with the participation of hooded individuals who point to the people to be detained, and on many opportunities the detainees are released shortly after being hauled in, due to a lack of evidence of any wrongdoing or crime.

The cases documented include a number of raids conducted on Aug. 21 in the town of Saravena in the northeastern province of Arauca by members of the security forces and people from the office of the public prosecutor, who were accompanied by two hooded individuals.

''The operation included raids of the offices of social organisations, trade unions and human rights groups, and of the homes of several people. A total of 42 people were arrested that day,'' states a CCJ report.

Those arrested included 14 trade unionists, five community activists, two teachers, three health workers, a human rights defender, a public employee, and one minor.

A report by the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International said that six days after the arrests, 14 of the 42 detainees had been released, while the remaining 28 were still in prison.

Activist Juan Carlos Celis, with the Corporation Movement for Life, a group that forms part of the Network of Initiatives for Peace and Against War, an umbrella organisation that links around 30 peace groups, was arbitrarily detained by the police in Bogota on Dec. 11, 2002 and tortured.

Celis was described by the police as ''the brains behind the wave of terrorism'' expanding in the city. He was arrested as part of a series of operations carried out on the basis of information furnished by the government's network of civilian informants, who provide ''intelligence'' in exchange for money.

According to Amnesty International, the police ''raided his home without a search warrant and without the presence of the appropriate judicial authorities. Juan Celis was beaten and subjected to electric shocks to force him to confess responsibility for crimes of terrorism.''

The CCJ said members of a committee made up of representatives of civil society set up to discuss official human rights policy with the government has asked the office of the vice-president for information on Celis's case, but has not yet received any response. The activist remains in prison.

The representative in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Michael Fruhling, said last Friday that the government and Congress had approved the new anti-terrorism law against the opinion of the office he heads in Colombia.

Fruhling said many aspects of the new legislation invade the privacy of citizens and amount to an abuse of basic human rights.

He also said that giving the military judicial police powers was in violation of international human rights treaties signed by Colombia, and would debilitate the independence of the judiciary.

But Carlos Franco, director of President Uribe's human rights programme, said that ''no human rights convention prohibits granting judicial police functions to the security forces.''

[Source: Yadira Ferrer by IPS, Bogota, Col, 23Dec03]

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