Unjustly detained Colombian human rights activist to face trial, US Aid to Colombia key to ending arbitrary detention of activists

All signs pointed to the release of Carmelo Agamez Berrio, a well known Colombian human rights activist, who has been unjustly detained for almost a year in Sucre. He had been appointed a new prosecutor and senior Colombian justice officials had raised concerns about due process rights violations in his case. However, in a surprising twist last week, the 28th antiterrorism prosecutor in Bogota issued a resolution formally bringing to trial the specious investigation against Agamez.

Carmelo Agamez is Technical Secretary of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) in Sucre department. He was detained in November 2008 charged with consorting with right-wing paramilitary leaders. Agamez has devoted his career to documenting human rights violations and exposing alleged links between local public officials and paramilitaries. Given his strident opposition to paramilitary groups, it is implausible that he has also been consorting with them. The case against Agamez has been marked by a series of inconsistencies and violations, which both a court and the Prosecutor General of Colombia have publicly recognized.

In May 2009, the Superior Tribunal of Sucre found that the prosecutor breached Agamez’s due process and defense rights by failing to inform him of the charges against him. According to Agamez’s defense, the arrest warrant against him was not authorized and his house was raided without a warrant. The charges against Agamez are based on the uncorroborated testimony from two discredited witnesses alleging that Agamez participated in a paramilitary meeting on an unspecified date. Neither of the witnesses are impartial: was recently detained after Agamez and MOVICE publicly exposed his alleged links to paramilitaries, while Agamez was involved in the arrest of the second witness’ brother and cousin. Many other witnesses have testified that Agamez did not participate in the meeting in question, while still another witness recanted her testimony explaining that the prosecutor had induced her to falsely impugn Agamez.

In July 2009, the Colombian Prosecutor General issued a formal resolution, in which he repeatedly cited concerns about the lack of impartiality in the investigation against Agamez by international human rights organizations such as Human Rights First. In the resolution he ordered a criminal investigation of Sucre prosecutor Rodolfo Martinez Mendoza for alleged corruption in connection with his baseless prosecution of Agamez.

It is inconceivable, after such serious concerns were raised by senior Colombian justice officials, that Agamez’s case could make it to trial. The new prosecutor has done so without offering any additional evidence of Agamez’s guilt nor addressing the evidentiary and due process concerns raised by senior justice officials.

It is crucial for the United States government to take a stand regarding this issue and demand that justice be served. Members of Congress and the US embassy in Colombia should raise their concerns about this case with the Colombian government and urge the Colombian Prosecutor General to take a strong stand regarding this injustice by immediately dropping the charges against Agamez.

Unfortunately, Agamez’s unjust detention is just one emblematic example of a much bigger problem: the extensive use of malicious criminal investigations and trumped-up charges to silence human rights activists in Colombia. This widespread nature of this problem was documented in a recent report by Human Rights First, In the Dock and Under the Gun: Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia.

Given that the United States provides Colombia with approximately $40 million in justice and rule of law aid, the US can and must be a part of the solution. The Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission has recognized this by holding two hearings this year related to the arbitrary detention of Colombian activists. Members of Congress, the State Department and the Department of Justice should all urge the Colombian Prosecutor General to issue a resolution to delegate a unit of his office to coordinate the review of all investigations against Colombian human rights defenders, which would immediately close all specious cases.