|IvÃ¡n Cepeda accepting the Baldwin prize last month.|
Last December we posted translated comments from IvÃ¡n Cepeda at an event in San Onofre, Sucre. Cepeda – the son of murdered leftist Senator Manuel Cepeda, a columnist for El Espectador and this year’s recipient of the Baldwin Human Rights Prize – is a leading figure in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes in Colombia, which formed during the paramilitary negotiations to advocate for their victimsâ€™ rights.
San Onofre, on the Caribbean coast just south of Cartagena, is one of the first places in Colombia where victims came forward to tell the authorities about mass graves filled with the paramilitaries’ victims. At the victims’ rights event in San Onofre’s municipal stadium last November 27, IvÃ¡n Cepeda publicly accused the town’s current mayor of having worked with paramilitaries. Here is what he said.
A first-order responsibility that has been exposed here is that of the current Mayor of San Onofre, Mr. Jorge Blanco Fuentes, who still has not renounced his post, but who should do it immediately for ethical, penal, and political reasons.
Mr. Blanco was the only candidate for the mayorship [in October 2003 elections] because of the pressure exercised by “Cadena.” His candidacy was launched at a public event in mid-2002, organized by this paramilitary leader at the “March 29″ cockfighting pit in Verrugas. Cadenaâ€™s crimes were clearly known by Mr. Blanco, since before he became mayor, at the apogee of the regime of terror, he was the municipal treasurer. Mr. Blanco also participated in other public events with the paramilitaries. His first decision as mayor was to fire, illegally, all the municipal governmentâ€™s career administrative officials, and to replace them with the paramilitariesâ€™ political appointees, while the paramilitaries also controlled the municipal council. Those dismissed could not claim their benefits and were compelled to sign resignation letters and acknowledgements of termination pay that they never received. Something similar happened to the personnel at the municipal hospital. Mr. Blanco attended a meeting on July 16, 2006 in which paramilitary leader Diego Vecino, various councilmen, and the ex-Congresswoman Muriel Benito Rebollo [currently in prison pending trial for paramilitary collaboration] also participated, with the goal of finding ways to pressure the population to guarantee that the ex-congresswomanâ€™s brother, Edgar Benito Rebollo, would be the municipalityâ€™s next mayor. The meeting took place in the house of Mrs. EstefanÃa Balseiro, mother of the ex-congresswoman.
Mayor Blanco did not take these charges lying down. He got Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office to initiate criminal proceedings against IvÃ¡n Cepeda on charges of slander and libel of a public official. (No such crime exists in the U.S. criminal code.) A prosecutor in Sucre’s capital, Sincelejo (a town also under heavy paramilitary influence), has been pursuing the case against IvÃ¡n Cepeda with particular vigor.
This case is so bizarre that twenty-eight members of the U.S. Congress, from both parties, sent a letter on Monday to Colombian Prosecutor-General Mario IguarÃ¡n protesting the treatment that Cepeda is receiving. Here is the text of that letter, and the list of signers. (PDF version)
July 16, 2007
Doctor Mario GermÃ¡n IguarÃ¡n Arana
Attorney General of the Nation
Ministry of Justice
Diagonal 22-B (Avenida Luis Carlos GalÃ¡n)
FAX: 011-(571) 570-2017
Dear Attorney General IguarÃ¡n:
We are writing to express our deep concern about criminal charges against Dr. Ivan Cepeda. Dr. Cepeda is a courageous human rights defender who has selflessly promoted the rights of victims of Colombia’s civil war and created a national social movement to call for justice. He is founder and director of the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes, and umbrella organization of more than 200 Colombian human rights organizations.
We are alarmed that a prosecutor (Quinta Delegada, Circuito de la Ciudad de Sincelejo, Radicado 70763) is investigating charges against Dr. Cepeda for slander and libel. We understand that these charges relate to comments made by Dr. Cepeda calling for the resignation of the Mayor of San Onofre, Jorge Blanco. We also understand that formal complaints have been lodged with the prosecutor against the mayor accusing him of connections with paramilitary organizations.
Regardless of the merits of the accusations against the mayor, it is the right of Dr. Cepeda and every citizen to criticize public officials and even to call for their resignation. It is especially important that citizens should not feel constrained in speaking openly about the observance of human rights principles by state officials.
We do not believe Dr. Cepeda’s comments constitute slander or libel.
We are also alarmed that on May 3, 2007, this same prosecutor attempted to enter the Senate Human Rights Commission allegedly in search of confidential information about Dr. Cepeda for use in his investigation against him.
We are concerned that the charges against Dr. Cepeda are politically motivated and form part of a broader pattern of instigating specious legal proceedings against Colombian human rights defenders in order to discredit them.
We call on you to take the appropriate steps that would allow the charges against Dr. Cepeda to be dropped. We further urge that the tactic of investigating and charging Colombian human rights defenders with offences where there is no adequate evidence to support those charges cease.
In the event that the charges against Dr. Cepeda are not dropped, we call on you to appoint an independent, objective and impartial prosecutor based in BogotÃ¡ to ensure a fair and balanced legal process. It is inappropriate for a local prosecutor in Sucre to be in charge of an investigation involving a mayor of the same Department.
James P. McGovern, Member of Congress
Joseph R. Pitts, Member of Congress
Tom Lantos, Member of Congress
Frank Wolf, Member of Congress
John Lewis, Member of Congress
Donald M. Payne, Member of Congress
Rosa L. DeLauro, Member of Congress
James L. Oberstar, Member of Congress
Barbara Lee, Member of Congress
Robert Wexler, Member of Congress
Sam Farr, Member of Congress
Jan Schakowsky, Member of Congress
Bobby L. Rush, Member of Congress
John W. Olver, Member of Congress
Raul M. Grijalva, Member of Congress
Chaka Fattah, Member of Congress
Michael R. McNulty, Member of Congress
Tammy Baldwin, Member of Congress
Peter A. DeFazio, Member of Congress
Lynn C. Woolsey, Member of Congress
Carolyn C. Kilpatrick, Member of Congress
Luis V. Gutierrez, Member of Congress
Michael M. Honda, Member of Congress
Betty Sutton, Member of Congress
Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., Member of Congress
Sheila Jackson Lee, Member of Congress
Linda T. Sanchez, Member of Congress
Phil Hare, Member of Congress