"Chilling": Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's Spying Program Targeted Judges and Journalists
As Colombian President Alvaro Uribe finishes his second term, the shield of invincibility that once protected him seems to be wearing thin. Not only was he denied the possibility of a third term, but human rights scandals and a resurgence of violence in the country are finally beginning to taint his reputation. Now evidence has emerged that appears to confirm the Uribe administration's involvement in yet another rights-violating policy: spying on and persecuting journalists, Supreme Court Justices and human rights defenders.
During the trial of five current and former functionaries of the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS, the intelligence agency that reports directly to the president) accused of illegally spying on journalists, Supreme Court justices, and human rights defenders, an investigator from the Attorney General's office presented detailed evidence that the illegal surveillance of the Supreme Court was directed from no less than the Casa de Nariño (Colombia's White House), despite the administration's constant denials of responsibility.
Among the evidence presented by the investigator last Saturday was a folder labeled "President Uribe," used by DAS agents to collect documents of "special interest" to the president, as well as transcriptions of private meetings and sessions of the high court that were clandestinely recorded by the intelligence agency. Evidence also included witness' descriptions of secret meetings in which DAS functionaries were delegated tasks for spying on the Justices. The witnesses named several high-level presidential advisors who participated in many of these meetings.
A particular focus of the surveillance, it seems, were the Justices' positions on Uribe's second reelection, which was recently struck down by the court. During presentation of evidence, the investigator questioned how the DAS knew about the Justice's opinions about the reelection as far back as August of 2002 -- without illegal surveillance, that is. The evidence also included documentation of surveillance and persecution of outspoken journalist Hollman Morris. Later that day, opposition politician and presidential candidate Gustavo Petro declared that evidence will soon be released to demonstrate that Uribe ordered "systematic persecution" against himself and his family.
"Chilling" is how the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Catalina Botero, described DAS persecution of journalists like Claudia Duque, who received threats that her daughter would be chopped to pieces. “It is very difficult to maintain that there is freedom of expression in a country in which the state intelligence agency has functionaries that practice systematic espionage, stigmatization and death threats against the people who are doing the heroic labor of reporting on what is happening in the country,” she declared.
The government, of course, has denied responsibility. In a radio interview Uribe himself swore his innocence, saying "You can say that I am saying this under oath to you, and all the Colombian public: This is a government that does not resort to playing dirty. This is a government that does things directly. That stuff about ordering people's wires tapped is outside the way of thinking and acting of this government."
The Supreme Court Justices aren't convinced, however. The President of the Court, Jaime Arrubla, compared the surveillance to Watergate. "Heads, including that of the President, rolled in the U.S. for infiltrating a political party... here it is much worse because the privacy of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, has been infiltrated."
"I am scandalized," said Justice César Valencia Copete. "This was a criminal enterprise against the Supreme Court. It is serious that they have hunted us for carrying out our duties; the acts were planned, systematic and not isolated," he alleged.
In response to these latest revelations in the intelligence scandal, the U.S. government announced the suspension of funding to DAS. After the announcement current DAS director Felipe Muñoz suggested that the U.S. would resume funding if Colombia created a new intelligence agency. While the suspension of U.S. aid is a welcome signal to the Colombian government that it should clean up its act, let's hope that the U.S. government withholds reinstating aid until there is clear evidence that the new agency does not persecute Supreme Court Justices and government critics. And in the meantime, the U.S. should carry out it's own investigation into whether U.S. assistance helped fund the illegal spying.