According to recent media reports, in the early hours of Thursday 27 November, lawyer and human rights defender (HRD) Diego Fernando Rodriguez was found dead in his home in the south western department of Cauca. He had been stabbed multiple times. Fernando Rodriguez was the legal representative of the local community council in Gana Plata, in the municipality of Mercaderes.
The killing comes amid a wave of violence against progressive social leaders in Colombia, particularly in Cauca and other regions of the country where demobilisation of the FARC rebel army has created a power vacuum in some rural areas. According to social organisations, at least 11 community leaders have been murdered in Cauca alone, so far this year.
In a statement condemning this latest killing, Deivin Hurtado, spokesperson for the regional human rights network, Red de Derechos Humanos del Sur Occidente Colombiano ‘Francisco Isaías Cifuentes, said, «It is lamentable that every time we meet to discuss how we can improve the security situation of HRDs and community leaders, we are presented with a higher number of such killings». He demanded action by the government to ensure the protection of HRDs so that they can continue their peaceful human rights work.
Human rights groups have urged the Colombian government to prioritise tackling paramilitary violence that often targets progressive social leaders including campesinos, indigenous activists and other human rights defenders.
The office of the United Nations in Brazil has issued a statement condemning the latest killing of a member of Movimento dos Trabalhadores Ruais Sem Terra (MST), which represents landless workers in rural areas of Brazil. The statement also called on the authorities to take action to enable human rights defenders (HRDs) to continue their peaceful human rights work.
On the evening of Sunday 23 April, 51 year old Silvino Nunes Gouveia was at home in Assentamento Liberdade, Vale do Rio Doce, in Minas Gerais, when he was called to the door of his house. When he went out, he was shot multiple times and died instantly. According to local media reports family members have stated that Silvino had received numerous threats because of his work defending the land rights of the community.
Silvino was the regional coordinator of MST in an area, where there are more than 1,200 families living in 5 camps. Members of the local community blocked traffic, in and out of the area, in a peaceful protest at the killing.
The United Nations statement underscored the importance of the work carried out by HRDs in promoting the development and realisation of human rights in the country. «It is necessary that state institutions guarantee all the conditions for carrying out this work safely, in any community and, in any part of the country. The United Nations system in Brazil reiterates its willingness to follow up on this issue. «
In a new report, human rights organisation Amnesty International denounced the increase in killings of indigenous people in Colombia.
Amnesty International states that between April 16 and 20, a spate of attacks by suspected right-wing paramilitaries on indigenous communities led to the deaths of six individuals belonging to either the Kite Kiwe, Awá, Wounaan or Nasa people(s).
On April 19, Gerson Acosta (35), an Indigenous leader of the Kite Kiwe people in Timbío, Cauca, was killed while leaving a community meeting. According to Amnesty International, other indigenous leaders shot and killed included Pedro Nel Pai Pascal (35), Jhonny Marcelo Cuajiboy Pascal (33), and Ever Goyes (35) of theAwá community and brothers Anselmo and Dalmiro Cardenas of the Wounan Indigenous people.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, director of Amnesty International for the Americas, emphasised that the situation indigenous communities face in Colombia is “alarming”. The spate of assassinations “raises serious doubts” concerning the Colombian government’s ability to follow through with peace plans concerning leftist militants, reports Tele SUR.
»These crimes highlight one of the main challenges in the implementation of the peace process. The protection of the communities living in the areas which have been most affected by the armed conflict and the need to guarantee that these deplorable acts (killings) do not go unpunished is vital» says Guevara-Rosas.
The Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia for 2016 highlighted an increase in killings in areas once occupied by paramilitary, group or individual criminal interests, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.
On 8 March, indigenous community leader Benjamín Juárez José was violently arrested by municipal police, forced into a police car and taken into custody in Matías Romero prison. Later that night he was transferred to the local hospital, supposedly for treatment. However, the hospital authorities declared in a statement that Benjamín was dead on arrival.
In an apparent attempt to cover up the killing, the local authorities declared that he was alive when he left the prison, but, according to the medical team, he was already dead when he arrived at the hospital. An autopsy is being carried out, but his body showed clear signs of him having been badly beaten, including extensive bruising and a cut on his forehead. He had apparently died about one hour previously.
Local community leaders are demanding an investigation into the circumstances of Benjamín’s death, given that this is the second death in similar circumstances, in this local jail in recent months.
So far there has been no credible investigation into either killing. There have also been other incidents during which detainees were badly beaten while in police custody. According to local police sources, an investigation has been opened into possible excessive use of force.
Local indigenous community leaders have been protesting outside the town hall with red and black crosses, demanding a full investigation into the killing.
On the evening of Sunday, 8 April, Suhas Haldankar, a RTI (Right to Information) activist, who had exposed several instances of political corruption in the Kharalwadi area of Maharashtra, was brutally murdered.
Eleven people have been arrested, including a former Congress corporator (elected local municipal official).
Haldankar was going home on his motorbike when he was stopped by two of the accused at a cross roads in the Kharalwadi area. They ridiculed Haldankar for a board he had put up recently, highlighting the lack of basic civic amenities in Kharalwadi. A group of 10-12 people then started throwing concrete blocks at Haldankar, who collapsed and died before he could be taken to hospital.
According to media reports, Suhas was highlighting the poor state of the civic administration in his area and had exposed several irregularities in the functioning of the Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal corporation (PCMC). At least one of the accused is said to be a former member of the PCMC and allegedly belongs to the Indian National Congress.
16 RTI activists have been killed in Maharashtra State since 2010, three of them since the present state government came to power in 2014. Condemning the incident, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has sent a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission calling on them to monitor the police investigation as “Suhas was a human rights defender fighting for public causes.” CHRI has also urged the Maharashtra State Information Commission to call for all pending RTI applications filed by Suhas to be made public. The central government has been trying to insist that all RTI applications for information should normally abate on the death of the appellant, which in this case would give a victory to the killers.
Currently, there is no law across India to protect whistleblowers who are victimised for exposing corruption. Parliament approved the Whistleblower Protection Act in 2011 but, instead of implementing it, the central government has pushed regressive amendments that will discourage potential whistleblowers from coming forward.
Taxi driver José Alberto Toledo Villalobos, was a human rights defender and campaigner for indigenous peoples’ and land rights in the area of San Pedro Tapanatepec. Oaxaca. He was a leading campaigner against large scale mining projects, which are being proposed for development in the eastern part of the Istmo region. He was also involved in the campaign against the imposition of excessive charges for electricity.
At 08.00pm on Saturday 8 March he was found badly beaten and semi-conscious on the road between San José and the petrol station at Tapanatepec. He had extensive bruises and other injuries and his taxi, which was found nearby, was a complete wreck.
According to witness reports, his taxi was followed by several other vehicles, which pursued him until they finally drove him off the road. The killers then beat José Alberto, leaving him in a critical condition. He was initially taken to a local clinic, before being taking to another hospital, because of the critical nature of his injuries, where he later died.
José Alberto had taken part in recent dialogues between local communities and the state authorities to reach agreement on how to de-escalate the conflict with the communities over the electricity charges. Despite an agreement with the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) that there would be no reprisals against the activists, the company continued to harass them with threats and intimidation, while electricity was cut off to the communities throughout the month of March.
José Alberto had reportedly received numerous death threats, telling him to give up his campaign for lower electricity charges or face the consequences.
When journalist Miroslava Breach was shot dead while taking one of her children home from school, in the city of Chihuahua, she was the third journalist to be killed in a month. Breach was a reporter for the national newspaper La Jornada and had also collaborated with local newspaper, Norte.
Now Oscar Cantu Murguia, the editor of Norte, has informed readers of his decision to shut down the newspaper in a farewell letter titled “Adios!” that was published on the paper’s front page and online.
Announcing the decision to close the paper, Cantu wrote: “On this day, esteemed reader, I address you to report that I have made the decision to close this newspaper due to the fact that, among other things, there are neither the guarantees nor the security to exercise critical, counterbalanced journalism.
“In these 27 years … we fought against the tide, receiving attacks and punishments from individuals and governments for having exposed their bad practices and corrupt acts that only played to the detriment of our city and the people who live in it.
“Everything in life has a beginning and an end, a price to pay,” he went on. “And if this is life, I am not prepared for any more of my collaborators to pay it, nor with my own person.”
He vowed to continue “fighting from other trenches, always contributing and being loyal to my ideals and my city”.
«The body responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights doesn’t have a single peso to protect the people, and if we can’t protect the people, we can’t protect the peace process.» Carlos Alfonso Negret Mosquera, Defensor del Pueblo, (Ombudsman).
A new report entitled «Violence and Threats against Social Leaders and Human Rights Defenders,» by Ombudsman Carlos Alfonso Negret Mosquera, has documented the killing of 156 social leaders and human rights defenders in the last 14 months. In addition to the 156 killings, there have also been 5 disappearances, 33 attacks and over 500 instances of threats. According to the Ombudsman «one of the main causes of this phenomenon is the attempt by illegal armed groups to occupy the territory from which the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) have withdrawn.»
Those at particular risk are members of afro-descendant and peasant communities in rural areas. as well as human rights defenders. The situation is further complicated by the activities of those elite groups opposed to the peace process, who object to land reform projects and who, in many cases, have links to paramilitary groups. The department of Cauca, which has a high proportion of indigenous people, has been particularly affected, accounting for 30% of the killings. While the departments of Cauca, Cordoba, Antioquia and Norte de Santander all have high numbers of killing, the problem is widespread with killings taking place in 23 of the 32 departments of the country.
In an interview the Ombudsman said that the bodies responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights in Colombia didn’t have «a peso» to address the findings of the report and if they couldn’t defend the people, neither could they defend the peace process.
The Ombudsman called on the government to provide the resources necessary to confront these issues adding that the government must find a way to work hand in hand with civil society. The first challenge would be to end the stigmatisation of HRDs and civil society leaders which creates the climate of impunity in which the killings can take place.