NEW YORK – The non-governmental organization Human Rights First has accused the U.S. government of delays in issuing a visa to Colombian activist Gabriel Gonzalez, winner of that group’s rights prize for 2009.
The New York- and Washington-based organization said in a press release Thursday that those delays could prevent the activist from being present to receive the award at a gala ceremony in New York on Oct. 22.
HRF said that because of the delays “Gonzalez may be thousands of miles away” from the ceremony, adding that “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 the CEO and executive director of that rights organization, Elisa Massimino, who added that the “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.”
Massimino was quoted as saying in the press release that the Colombian activist first applied for his visa four months ago, but “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,” Massimino said.
Gonzalez is a 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 decades-old armed conflict, whose main combatants are leftist rebels, rightist paramilitaries and government forces.
“Ironically, Gonzalez’s advocacy led to his own arrest,” HRF said. “He was detained for more than a year on the false charge of being a guerilla leader.”
According to the NGO, the Colombian activist now faces seven more years in prison if his appeal to Colombia’s Supreme Court is not successful.
Human Rights First also said the State Department and several U.N. bodies “have expressed concern that his prosecution is baseless and intended to discredit him and undermine his work.”
Among the U.N. bodies mentioned are the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia.
The NGO also said that at the beginning of 2009 “Gonzalez received support from the State Department to appeal the criminal investigation to Colombia’s Supreme Court.”
It noted that the State Department in 2007 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.’”
“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,” Massimino was quoted as saying.
Domestic and international human rights groups have drawn the ire of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for accusing his hard-line government of being overly lenient with right-wing militias and failing to ensure that those responsible for killing union leaders – and others suspected of links to left-wing guerrillas – are brought to justice.
Gonzalez was chosen by Human Rights First to receive its 2009 Human Rights Award “in recognition of his courageous defense of human rights in Colombia.”
He is to be honored on Oct. 22 at an event hosted by U.S. newsman Tom Brokaw at Chelsea Piers in New York City. EFE