For Immediate Release
Brenda Bowser Soder
US Government Stalls on Visa for Colombian Activist
Delays Could Prevent Activist from Being Present to Receive Human Rights Award
NEW YORK - Human Rights First has chosen Colombian activist Gabriel Gonzalez as
the 2009 recipient of its prestigious human rights award. The award
will be presented at a gala ceremony in New York on October 22, but
instead of being part of the celebration in New York, Gonzalez may be
thousands of miles away. 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 Elisa Massimino, CEO and
Executive Director of Human Rights First. "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. Yet, almost four months after Gonzalez first applied for
his visa, 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
Gonzalez is a groundbreaking 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 conflict. Ironically, Gonzalez's advocacy led to
his own arrest. He was detained for more than a year on the false
charge of being a guerilla leader, and now faces seven more years in
prison if his test-case appeal to Colombia's Supreme Court is unsuccessful.
Both the State Department and various UN bodies - including the
Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, the UN Working Group on
Arbitrary Detention and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Rights in Colombia - have expressed concern that his prosecution is
baseless and intended to discredit him and undermine his work. Earlier
this year, Gonzalez received support from the State Department to
appeal the criminal investigation to Colombia's Supreme Court. And, in
2007, the State Department 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." The Colombian courts have confirmed that Gonzalez is free to travel to the US.
"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," said Massimino. In February 2009, Human Rights First released a
groundbreaking report In the Dock and Under the Gun: Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia,
that, for the first time, documented the widespread and systematic
nature of the problem. Last month, after an extensive visit to
Colombia, and a meeting with Gonzalez, the UN Special Rapporteur on
Human Rights Defenders decried the problem of unfounded criminal proceedings against Colombian activists.
Gonzalez was chosen by Human Rights First for the 2009 Human Rights
Award in recognition of his courageous defense of human rights in
Colombia. He will be honored at an event hosted by legendary newsman
Tom Brokaw on Thursday, October 22 at Chelsea Piers in New York City.
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Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C. Human Rights First believes that building respect for human rights and the rule of law will help ensure the dignity to which every individual is entitled and will stem tyranny, extremism, intolerance, and violence.