April 16, 2006

Rights group slams Colombia’s Uribe over charges

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch sharply
criticized Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for what it called
a "wildly improper response" to charges that his government's
intelligence service helped paramilitaries kill civilians.

The Columbian press has reported that the Administrative
Security Department, or DAS, cooperated with the far-right
militias, prompting the famously short-tempered Uribe to accuse
reporters of maliciously harming the country's democratic

"Instead of attacking the news media for reporting
allegations of criminal activity, President Uribe should ensure
a full investigation of the charges," New York-based Human
Rights Watch said in a statement late on Sunday.

Uribe singled out journalists and commentators including
Ramiro Bejarano, a lawyer who served on a commission appointed
last year to investigate the DAS.

"Our investigation showed the paramilitaries had deeply
infiltrated the DAS," Bejarano told Reuters.

"This is as serious as if, in the United States, the FBI
had been infiltrated by the Mafia," he said. "Uribe's reaction
has been not to clean up the agency but to attack journalists
covering the story."

A government spokesman disagreed, saying it is taking steps
to ensure the DAS operates legally.

Magazines Cambio and Semana published interviews with a
disgraced ex-member of the DAS who accused it of protecting
paramilitaries while helping some militia commanders target
labor leaders for assassination.

Semana also quoted the source saying the paramilitaries
helped Uribe get elected by using fraud in 2002.

Uribe dismissed Semana as "frivolous" and portrayed its
editor as a high society fop.

"President Uribe's aggressive response raises suspicion
about whether he actually wants the truth known, and it has a
chilling effect on freedom of expression," Human Rights Watch

Uribe, popular for cutting crime as part of his crackdown
on left-wing rebels fighting a four-decade-old insurgency, is
expected to win re-election on May 28 despite the DAS probe.

"There is a big teflon factor for Uribe," said Eduardo
Gamarra, political analyst at Florida International University.
"It does not matter what accusations come up. Chances of him
winning a first round victory remain high."

Opposition politicians say Uribe has given soft treatment
to paramilitaries who have agreed to lay down their arms in
return for reduced prison sentences for crimes including
massacres and torture.

Critics of the demobilization say the militias, organized
by landowners in the 1980s to fight off the rebels, are not
being forced to dismantle their cocaine-smuggling networks as
part of the deal.