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Dangerous surveillance. Thanks, State Dept

January 9, 2009
It was a holiday – somehow, the full-time activists here are always most available and willing to talk about the work they do everyday, on holidays – and we were hanging out in a windowless room of the human rights network office, sipping tinto. J. had just returned from giving a workshop in Pasto, and was headed out the next morning to a town in the north of Valle del Cauca. I mentioned that I’d been at the FOR house the day before the news broke about government spying, and asked whether they’ve received threats recently. “Well, my predescessor had to leave town… some of our comrades, mostly university students, get death threats via text message.” Later, leaving the office, my friend D., who works as a doctor in rural refugee communities, confessed that he doesn’t like coming down there. I was puzzled; it’s in the city center, a fairly well-lit neighborhood with lots of people on the street. “They watch the office, monitor who comes and goes. Paracos. And the police.” 
 
When it’s dangerous to be seen walking into a human rights NGO office in your hometown, more often than not because paramilitaries are watching, it’s hard to imagine how a little extra email surveillance could be so bad. But the more people I talk to the more obvious it is that “official” spying informs illegal groups – just as Uribe’s denouncements of groups like Human Rights Watch have put rights workers at risk.
 
Late last month rights groups discovered that Colombian police have been monitoring the emails of dozens of HR orgs, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation and their accompaniment project in San Jose de Apartado. Turns out the US government had a hand in this too:
In 2006 the State Department awarded a $5 million contract to provide SIJIN [Colombian police intelligence unit] with ‘internet surveillance software.’ As a result, U.S. taxpayers were apparently paying for Colombian agencies to spy on legitimate U.S. and Colombian humanitarian organizations.”

FOR is asking allies to send an email to Assistant Secretary David J. Kramer.

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