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Continuing our recent focus on Colombia, Peace News met with Soraya Gutierrez Arguello, president of CAJAR (the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective, based in Bogota) for a chat about the struggle of human rights defenders operating in one of the most violent countries in the world, and the pros and cons of using the legal framework to challenge the culture of impunity.

A drop of hope

Soraya began her human rights work when she became a lawyer in 1986 -- a period which she describes as “a very hard time in Colombian history; it was a time when political assassinations and massacres of a great part of the people's social movement of Colombia were on the rise”.

The collective has been protected by Peace Brigades International (PBI) volunteers, as Soraya and her colleagues suffer threats and intimidation on a daily basis from Colombia's security and paramilitary forces. In Bogota last May, one of her house's security guards gave Soraya a suspicious package. She called the police, who opened the package and found a beheaded doll with its limbs torn off, a cross drawn on its torso, and painted with red nail varnish resembling blood. The note that came with it said: “You have a very beautiful family, take care of them, don't sacrifice them.” In October, PBI brought Soraya and other members of the Collective to London for the start of the legal year to promote solidarity between Colombian and British lawyers, which is where we caught up with her for this interview. PN:What kind of work is CAJAR involved with?

SGA:Its work is mainly focused on taking judicial cases to national and international courts, regarding serious violations of human rights (HR). We're a group of lawyers that represent victims of HR violations, such as forced disappearances, illegal executions, and massacres. We try to see that truth, justice and full reparations are carried out. We also defend people who are in prison or have been detained for political reasons, and we work on education and training. PN:Tell us a little about the attack you suffered and the threats against your family. How did you feel and what did you do?

SGA:Well, all members of the Collective have been subject to death threats and harassment during their professional careers. This situation made us ask for the presence of organisations like Peace Brigades International, which has been providing us with protective accompaniment for eight years now. This has been very important because they have helped us travel safely throughout Colombia.

The safety situation has got worse since 2002, when President Uribe took a strong position against human rights organisations. Under this government, 35 human rights lawyers have been killed, among them nine women, more than under any other previous administration.

I was attacked in February 2002. I was going home when a car intercepted me, and three men got out. I was driving alone, without my usual escort. The men started yelling at me, they wanted me to get out of the car. I saw my life passing in front of my eyes; I was wondering if the car could resist a gunshot. I don't know how, but I had enough courage to drive away. They had machine guns; the car was hit, but I didn't know if it was by gunshot or not.

After that, came the threats against my seven-year-old daughter. It has been very difficult, there have been strange phone calls to my house, people have followed me home, and I even had to move away temporarily. Five months have passed by and I still don't have a permanent place to live. PN:What advice would you give to those who are interested in becoming part of the fight for human rights?

SGA:People often think that what they can do is very little and of no use, but for us in Colombia, a letter to the Colombian embassy, or an action in front of the embassy, or anything at all that makes the HR situation in Colombia visible is very important. This shows the government that the international community knows about the situation in Colombia and that people are concerned. I would encourage readers to join the networks that already exist. Here in Britain there are many Colombian support groups, like Amnesty International, PBI, and Justice for Colombia. It's important to know that others are working on this issue. PN:What are the pros and cons of working within a legal framework in Colombia?

SGA:There are both advantages and disadvantages. Disadvantages, because in Colombia we have a judicial system that fails to solve 99.9 percent of all cases regarding human rights violations. That limits us in our work, in our legal actions, in our search for justice...

In the few cases in which we have managed to establish things or win justice, we have done it through taking the cases to international organisations like the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Human Rights Court. We have tried to use all the national and international legal instruments that allow us to defend basic rights, and I believe that we have obtained positive results.

Of course, we are clear that all the work and the fight against impunity cannot be done by judicial means alone, which is why we are committed to carrying out organisational work with the victims and education work, in teaching and supporting victims to defend and demand their rights. The issue of fighting for your rights is not solved with a law, it is solved if the communities organise themselves, if they are empowered to demand their rights... the judicial or legal element goes along with the organisational, political and educational aspects. PN:How do you see the future for popular organisations in Colombia, given the current political climate?

SGA:Let's say that the future in Colombia is a dark one... what is happening in Colombia now is risking our democracy, because we have a right-wing president, who made a constitutional reform to re-elect himself [see http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Colombian_Constitutional_Court_passes_presidential_ re-election for details], in a context where we see the consolidation of a right-wing [social] model, and a gangster-like paramilitary model; it is a dark panorama for the kind of work that we do, of fighting against impunity. But we also have much hope, because at a regional, Latin American level, many democratic movements are emerging, social movements, like what is happening in Brazil, in Ecuador, Venezuela. I mean, that amidst this situation, still these movements exist, entire communities, people mobilising... And it is also happening in Colombia. Communities continue resisting; you see how indigenous communities have mobilised, have risen up; in that context of repression, more than 50,000 indigenous people mobilised last year for their rights, and that is very, very significant.

We are currently developing the possibility of building a movement with the victims, that brings together both women and men. We know it will be a long process, but people have the spirit, the hope, and are willing to stand up and face things. That is important. Although the picture in the political and military sphere is dark, we see potential, we see that in the midst of this sea of impunity there is always a drop of hope, and that drop lies in the communities that continue to resist.

Translation: Oscar
Additional editing: Renata Sancken
PBI Colombia, Development House, 56-64 Leonard St, London EC2A 4JX (020 7065 0990; fax 7065 0995; email info@pbicolombia.org).