The trial now underway in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, has rightly been described as “a landmark case”…

The trial now underway in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, has rightly been described as “a landmark case” and one that serves as a great opportunity to celebrate International Women’s Day by highlighting the contribution of one remarkable woman in the fight against impunity for crimes involving illegal surveillance of journalists and state sanctioned violations of human rights up to and including murder.

Claudia Julieta Duque is a Colombian journalist and trade unionist with many year’s experience who is determined to help put an end to the culture of impunity. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), during 2015, 109 journalists were killed around the world doing their job, and only one in ten of these crimes were even investigated. Perhaps surprisingly—given everything else that was going on in 2015—the Americas accounted for more of the deaths than any other part of the world, with a dismal total of 27. There are even more non-fatal attacks.

Governments routinely fail in their duty to hunt down the attackers, harassers and killers of media workers. They ignore international and domestic laws guaranteeing the protection of press freedom, and of individual journalists as civilians, allowing the criminals to escape justice. Often it is agents of governments themselves—death squads and terror gangs—who are responsible for illegal acts which undermine the role of the media in supporting democracy and helping to bring peace and encourage development in some of the poorest and most strife-torn areas of the world.

“No single journalist in Europe has to deal with risks comparable to the risks journalists in Latin America face,” says Duque, drawing from her own painful experience. Duque, a correspondent for Colombia’s human rights Internet-based radio station Radio Nizkor, became a victim of Colombia’s now-disbanded Administrative Department of Security (DAS) following an investigation into the murder of Jaime Garzón Forero, a well-known journalist, satirist and lawyer. Garzón was killed in 1999 and it was not long before Duque’s investigation began to point to DAS.

Then the threats, smears and intimidation began. Duque had to turn her investigative skills to her own case. Three times she had to flee the country when she seemed to be getting too close, but eventually she was able to prove that her suspicions were true.

DAS’s routine use illegal surveillance and its techniques for intimidation were exposed by the leading Colombian news weekly, Semana, in the dying days of the presidency of rightist Álvaro Uribe Vélez. By 2009, the mood in the country was changing. The evidence of wrongdoing was too strong to ignore and the authorities announced that DAS would be dissolved and replaced by a new, better regulated, intelligence agency. DAS stood accused of illegal spying on government critics, including human rights activists, reporters and magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice.

In 2010, a new, reform-minded president came to power and DAS’s former director, Jorge Noguera, had no-one to protect him. He was charged on numerous counts including aiding and abetting right-wing death squads to assassinate three union leaders and a sociologist. In 2011, DAS was finally dissolved and Noguera was tried and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

By 2013, seven leading members of DAS had been identified in connection with the events centred on Claudia Julieta Duque. Thise that could be found, had been arrested and charged with psychological torture and physical intimidation. The law began to take its slow and inexorable course. In December 2014, a Bogotá criminal court reached a verdict in the first case. Hugo Daney Ortiz, DAS’s former deputy director of operations, was found guilty of the “aggravated psychological torture” of Duque and her daughter in 2003 and 2004. He was sentenced to 11 years in jail for carrying out a campaign of aggression and death threats. Meanwhile, another of the seven, former DAS assistant director José Miguel Narváez was accused of orchestrating the murder of Garzón in 1999.

At the time of Ortiz’s sentencing, Duque commented “His conviction is the Christmas present that I wanted most.” But there were plenty of people left to try to dampen the festive mood. Legal proceedings dragged on, trials were postponed and intimidation continued. Threats have also been directed at Duque’s lawyer, Víctor Javier Velásquez Gil, and both their families. Happily, Duque had friends in Colombia and across the world in the union movement, human rights organisations, freedom of speech campaigners and the press. She is truly an international woman.

The case of three of the seven is at last being heard and Claudia Julieta Duque will be testifying. Her friends have gathered round and formed a campaign group seeking guarantees of judicial independence, protection for Duque, implementation of the outstanding arrest orders, investigation of ex-president Uribe and DAS’s ex-director Noguera, and a proper investigation of the attacks on Duque, her lawyer and their families.

Among those supporting Claudia Julieta Duque and monitoring the trial are:

Foundation for Press Freedom – FLIP
Equipo Nizkor
Front Line Defenders
Free Press Unlimited
Organización Mundial Contra la Tortura 
Federación Colombiana de Periodistas – Fecolper

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Gary Herman

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