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by ANNCOL Friday, Aug. 16, 2002 at 12:40 AM

Less than a week after being inaugurated as Colombia’s new president, extremist Alvaro Uribe Velez, has enacted a law that vastly curtails the rights of Colombian citizens and appears to legalise certain tactics used by paramilitary death squads. Civil society is bracing itself for the worst and already parts of the union movement are making plans to start operating in secret.

13.08.2002 (By Alfredo Castro, ANNCOL Bogotá) After repeatedly promising during his election campaign to respect civil and human rights if elected, Colombia’s new president has already began restricting these rights. On Monday, less than a week after taking office, Alvaro Uribe Velez signed into law a series of measures giving the state security forces sweeping new powers to use against the civilian population in their campaign to wipe out the Colombian opposition.

The new legislation will allow Uribe to pass laws by decree, place controls on the freedom of the press and restrict basic rights such as assembly and movement. Most worryingly of all some of the measures seem to be aimed at legalising various terror tactics that the death squads of the Colombian military have already been using for some years.

In an interview yesterday ANNCOL spoke with a member of the National Executive Committee of the CUT trade union federation based in Bogotá and asked him what he thought of the new measures:

ANNCOL: What exactly are the new laws that Uribe signed yesterday?

David (name changed for security): Fundamentally it was a package of measures designed to limit basic freedoms and civil rights in general. One part of the law, for example, allows the state security forces to detain people only on suspicion of supporting the guerrillas – with no proof needed at all – and another allows the army and police to break into people’s homes without a warrant. But there are even worse parts such as restrictions on the freedom of movement and the freedom of the press.

Another bit lets the state ban meetings, protests, etc that are against state policy. What I fear is that these new regulations will be used against people such as trade unionists, human rights workers, land reform activists, student leaders and independent journalists, all of whom Uribe hates as he says they are guerrilla sympathisers.

ANNCOL: What has been the reaction to these new laws?

David: Right now people are too scared to speak out, as nobody knows what is coming. I know that the Permanent Committee for Human Rights has objected and earlier today the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders condemned the measures to limit press freedom, but most people have so far remained silent. What this means is that Uribe is creating a climate of fear that will allow him to operate with absolute impunity as, if he has his way, we will all be forced up into the mountains and the only groups left in civil society will be the fake NGOs like Pais Libre. [Editors note: Pais Libre is an anti-guerrilla organisation funded jointly by the US Embassy and the Santos family, one of the wealthiest in Colombia. One of its founders was Francisco Santos Uribe’s extremist vice-president].

ANNCOL: When you say that people will “be forced up into the mountains” do you mean to join the rebels?

David: Not exactly as although many leaders and activists are already fighting with the FARC and ELN, and I expect that many more will join them as things get worse for us in the coming year, when I talk of the ‘mountains’ I mean it in a broader sense too. All over Colombia people are forced to operate in secrecy because of the constant attacks by the security forces and these people may or may not be working with the guerrillas. What I meant to say is that more and more people will have to work in secret and although this will inevitably mean that they will come into contact with groups like the Bolivarian Movement [Editors note:the Bolivarian Movement is FARC’s political movement] it does not necessarily mean that they are all guerrillas. As you may have read in the press many human rights groups and others are already copying their records in the expectation that there will soon be raids on their offices and already some union leaders have talked of setting up a shadow structure that will still be able to function if they begin to detain us and shut down our offices.

ANNCOL: People are saying that some of the new laws seem to legalise paramilitary death squad tactics. Can you explain?

David: There are two things in particular that Uribe has legalised which for many years the paramilitaries have been doing. One is that he seems to be trying to legalise the phenomena of forced displacement. A part of the new law allows the security forces to give people two days warning to leave their homes and land in the interests of ‘national security’ and this is identical to what the death squads have been practicing for a long time now. Another strange part of the law is the restrictions it places on cell phones. Again the paramilitaries have tried to force people in rural areas to not use cell phones as this allows them to communicate with others and part of the paramilitary strategy is to make rural communities feel cut off from the outside world. Basically the phones allow people to alert others when the death squads are in their region massacring people. There are hundreds of cases of people being executed by the paramilitaries just for having a cell phone and now Uribe appears to be attempting to implement this by law.

ANNCOL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

David: Yes, I would appeal to the international community not to be taken in by Uribe and his chums. They are thugs and have a long history of involvement with the paramilitaries as well as with the drugs traffickers. In an interview on Sunday Londoño [Editors note:Fernando Londoño is Uribe’s new interior and justice minister] was asked which rights the new laws could restrict and he replied, “All of them”. What we expect is that the situation will get much worse in both the cities and the rural areas very rapidly and it is only through more international attention to what is going on here that Uribe can be constrained. If the USA know that people are watching they will be a lot more careful about where their money is going and without their money Uribe is nothing.

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