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Colombian President Angers Activists

September 9, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Human rights defenders, accused by President Alvaro Uribe of being allied with terrorists for criticizing his crackdown on leftist rebels, denounced his comments Tuesday, saying they have endangered their lives.

More than 80 humanitarian organizations, including some of the nation’s most respected human rights groups, contributed to a report entitled ``The Authoritarian Curse,″ which provoked Uribe’s harsh words. The report, released Monday, condemned government abuses and attacks on civil liberties.

Uribe, in a speech during a military ceremony Monday, accused some of the reports’ authors _ whom he did not specifically name _ of acting ``in the service of terrorism.″

``When the terrorists begin to feel weakened, they immediately send their spokespeople for the human rights (groups),″ Uribe said. He challenged them to ``take off their masks ... and drop this cowardice of hiding their ideas behind human rights.″

Alirio Uribe, a lawyer who runs a support network for victims of military atrocities and families of murdered journalists and union leaders, said the president’s comments could be seen by outlawed right-wing militias and others battling the guerrillas as a green light to attack human rights workers.

``The lives of human rights defenders lie in the hands of the president,″ said Uribe, who is not related to the president.

Gloria Cuartas, a member of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights, said the president’s refusal to accept criticism has vindicated the report’s underlying claim _ that the government has a penchant for authoritarian rule.

Amnesty International, which lent its support to the report and attended its launch, warned in a statement that ``intolerance toward criticism leads toward an authoritarian society.″

In Colombia, branding individuals or groups as supporters of one of the outlawed warring sides can prove fatal. The rebels and their paramilitary foes frequently execute civilians suspected of helping the other side.

Jorge Rojas, head of the Office for Human Rights and Forced Displacement, said the president’s failure to specifically name those organizations he believes play into the hands of terrorists has placed the nation’s entire humanitarian community in danger.

``Human rights groups are in a very precarious situation following the president’s speech,″ Rojas said.

Last year, 17 human rights workers were killed or disappeared, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists. Dozens of others fled the country after receiving death threats.

Despite his strongly worded remarks, Uribe _ who is leading a campaign to defeat a 39-year Marxist-inspired insurgency on the battlefield _ said his government remains committed to human rights. He also said he respects criticism from what he said were legitimate groups, but again did not say which ones he was referring to.

The report released Monday accuses the armed forces of using excessive force and putting civilian lives at risk. It also accuses the government of ignoring the plight of thousands of people displaced by the fighting and says the government’s explanation that the military campaign is designed to strengthen democracy is a disguise for repression and the militarization of society.

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