Thursday, October 8, 2009

Human Rights First: US Stalling on Visa for Human Rights Activist from Colombia

US Government Stalls on Visa for Colombian Activist

Delays Could Prevent Activist from Being Present to Receive Human Rights Award

- Human Rights First has chosen Colombian activist Gabriel Gonzalez as the 2009 recipient of its prestigious human rights award. The award will be presented at a gala ceremony in New York on October 22, but instead of being part of the celebration in New York, Gonzalez may be thousands of miles away. His visa is being held up by the U.S. government, apparently because of false charges lodged against him by the Colombian authorities – despite U.S. agreement that those charges amount to nothing.

“Rather than welcoming Gonzalez, the U.S. government is letting him languish in a bureaucratic black hole.” said Elisa Massimino, CEO and Executive Director of Human Rights First. “The State Department has long supported Gonzalez’ work as well as his effort to fight the very trumped up criminal charges that may now prevent him from entering the United States. Yet, almost four months after Gonzalez first applied for his visa, his application is stalled in a seemingly endless bureaucratic back and forth between the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies. This sends the wrong message to the Colombian authorities and undercuts U.S. policy to support Colombian human rights defenders who are under attack.”

Gonzalez is a groundbreaking student activist and regional coordinator of the Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee in Colombia where he has worked to promote access to justice for prisoners and victims of Colombia’s conflict. Ironically, Gonzalez’s advocacy led to his own arrest. He was detained for more than a year on the false charge of being a guerilla leader, and now faces seven more years in prison if his test-case appeal to Colombia’s Supreme Court is unsuccessful.

Both the State Department and various UN bodies - including the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia –
have expressed concern that his prosecution is baseless and intended to discredit him and undermine his work. Earlier this year, Gonzalez received support from the State Department to appeal the criminal investigation to Colombia’s Supreme Court. And, in 2007, the State Department included Gonzalez in its human rights country report citing his baseless prosecution as being emblematic of “the government's attempts to harass human rights defenders.”

The Colombian courts have confirmed that Gonzalez is free to travel to the US.

“Gonzalez’s case is
just one example of a systematic problem in Colombia. Colombian activists from all walks of life are routinely subjected to trumped-up charges intended to stigmatize and silence them,” said Massimino. In February 2009, Human Rights First released a groundbreaking report In the Dock and Under the Gun: Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, that, for the first time, documented the widespread and systematic nature of the problem. Last month, after an extensive visit to Colombia, and a meeting with Gonzalez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders decried the problem of unfounded criminal proceedings against Colombian activists.

Gonzalez was chosen by Human Rights First for the 2009 Human Rights Award in recognition of his courageous defense of human rights in Colombia. He will be honored at an event hosted by legendary newsman Tom Brokaw on Thursday, October 22 at Chelsea Piers in New York City.

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