International Court finds Colombian state violently targeted CAJAR human rights organisation

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has declared the Colombian state responsible for the harassment and persecution of the José Alvear Restrepo human rights lawyers’ collective (CAJAR) for more than two decades.

The historic ruling concludes a legal campaign which began 22 years ago and is the first time that the Court has found a state to have deliberately targeted an organisation dedicated to the defence of human rights. According to the ruling, intelligence services monitored members of CAJAR and provided information to paramilitary groups that subsequently targeted them. ‘The state created a situation of risk to the life and personal integrity of the victims,’ said the court.

The court found the state violated 14 separate rights, including the right to life, to freedom of thought and expression, to private life, to the truth and to legal guarantees. It also violated the right to family protection and the rights of children. It called on Colombian authorities to investigate aggression towards CAJAR, release intelligence files on the organisation’s members, apologise for its actions and compensate victims.

In response to the ruling, CAJAR vice-president Jomary Ortegón said ‘the act of stigmatising and persecuting put lives at risk.’ In 2001, when she joined CAJAR, around half of its leadership were in exile due to the threats they faced. JFC has previously worked closely with CAJAR.

CAJAR was founded in 1978 during the authoritarian government of Julio César Turbay, which accused human rights defenders, peasant farmers and community activists of being guerrillas or guerrilla sympathisers. ‘We became the internal enemy for raising our voices and denouncing the State and its military forces, for saying that the paramilitaries were created as a way to repress social movements,’ said Ortegón.

Legal cases pursued by CAJAR include action to establish the truth behind human rights abuses committed by the state during the 2002-10 hardline presidency of Álvaro Uribe – who baselessly smeared CAJAR as ‘the legal arm of the FARC’ in a move designed to legitimise attacks on the organisation – as well as the state-led campaign of extermination against the progressive Patriotic Union (UP) party in the 1980s-90s. It has also sought justice for victims of paramilitary massacres.

These cases, among others, saw the families of CAJAR members sent funeral wreaths with the names of their loved ones or other forms of threat. More recently, current CAJAR president Yessika Hoyos has received threats over her representation of victims of a 1996 paramilitary massacre.

Other measures put forward in the court ruling include the compilation of data on violence towards human rights defenders and guarantees over freedom of access to information on state crimes.