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Defending Human Rights
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) defending civil and political rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and in some countries gay and lesbian rights have grown steadily across the hemisphere over the last decade. Civil and political rights groups, generally the most established of the NGOs, developed increasing sophistication in their documentation and advocacy, even as they faced a hostile environment. In almost every country in the region, human rights groups faced an unsympathetic public. In many countries they faced threats and harassment. In Cuba, they faced threats, prison terms, or exile. In Colombia and Guatemala, they still faced murder. And while embarrassed governments promised in international fora to take measures to protect human rights defenders, they were negligent in that regard at home. The fact that these groups continued to operate, and their staff to endure threats, harassment, and scorn year after year, was a testament to human perseverance.

Colombia continued to stand out in the region for its shocking record of assassination of human rights defenders, at a time when such crimes have become more unusual throughout the hemisphere. During the first nine months of 1998, six human rights defenders were murdered, among them government officials investigating human rights abuses as well as nongovernmental defenders. The nation’s most powerful paramilitary organization was implicated in the February shooting death of human rights lawyer Jesús María Valle Jaramillo, while an army intelligence unit was believed responsible for the April slaying of another human rights attorney, Eduardo Umaña, two months later. Also slain were Edilbrando Roa López and Jhon Alejandro Morales Patiño, assigned to the Attorney General’s Human Rights Unit to investigate a series of paramilitary massacres.

In Guatemala, a universally respected senior figure in the human rights movement, Bishop Juan José Gerardi, was bludgeoned to death days after the church human rights office he directed issued a four-volume study of atrocities by all sides in Guatemala’s three decades of internal armed conflict. The study, three years in the making, held government forces and their allies responsible for 90 percent of the grave human rights violations committed during the conflict, attributing the remaining 10 percent to guerrillas. The twisted course of the government’s shoddy investigation into the Gerardi assassination brought into serious question its ability to make a break with the nation’s tradition of granting impunity to human rights violators.

Human rights defenders faced serious threats in Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico, and continued to be the subject of arrests and criminal prosecution in Cuba. At this writing, Cuban authorities prepared to try four leaders of the Internal Dissidents’ Working Group on sedition charges emanating from their pleas for release of political prisoners. The four dissidents — Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, Félix Antonio Bonne Carcasses, and René Gómez Manzano — had been in pretrial detention in maximum security prisons since their July 16, 1997 arrests.













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Human RIghts Watch