Hollman Morris Visa Denied
by Charles Lemos, Wed Jul 14, 2010 at 04:12:47 AM EDT
In a speech to the AFL-CI0 in Philadelphia back in April 2008 just 18 days before the critical Democratic primary in heavily unionized Pennsylvania, candidate Barack Obama then the junior Senator from Illinois and locked in a fierce battle for the Democratic nomination said he as president would oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) “because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.”
That was then, this is now. In a speech last week to the President's Export Council, President Obama urged Congress to ratify the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement "as soon as possible." Though the President noted that the Administration was "working to resolve outstanding issues" and that any agreement with Colombia would uphold "our most cherished values," the President chose not to directly address the continuing violence against trade unionists in Colombia perhaps because it is an inconvenient fact. Since Senator Obama made his adamant opposition to a Colombia FTA clear as he searched for votes in the Keystone state, over a hundred trade unionists have been killed in Colombia including 49 in 2009 and 25 so far in 2010. Talk about making a mockery of oneself.
While Colombia remains the world's most dangerous place to be a trade unionist, Colombia is also not a good place to be an investigative journalist as Hollman Morris can attest. As I noted last week, Hollman Morris, an award-winning Colombian journalist, television producer and a defender of human rights, was denied a visa to study as a Neiman Fellow at Harvard University by the Obama Administration. The Washington Post has some more details on the decision:
In his work reporting on this country's drug-fueled conflict, Colombian journalist Hollman Morris has met frequently with high-ranking American officials and been received at agencies from the State Department to the Pentagon.
In January, it was a lunch with State's No. 2, James B. Steinberg, at the residence of the American ambassador in Bogotá. A few months before that, he had met Daniel Restrepo, senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, to discuss alleged abuses by Colombia's secret police.
But when Morris sought a U.S. student visa so he could take a fellowship for journalists at Harvard University, his application was denied. He was ineligible, U.S. officials told him, under the "terrorist activities" section of the USA Patriot Act.
The suggestion that Hollman Morris is engaged in "terrorist activities" or that he "represents terrorist organizations" is laughable. Only President Uribe who views anyone who dares to criticize him as an "accomplice of terrorism" and who thinks that human rights groups are but the "intellectual bloc of the FARC" would think such. It is tragic that the Obama Administration would endorse such a view.
More from the Post's story:
Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer in New York, said the visa denial appeared to be ideological, because no public information tying Morris to terrorism has surfaced. Jaffer had litigated Bush administration exclusions of two prominent Muslim academics, Adam Habib from South Africa and Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen who teaches at Oxford University. The Obama administration rescinded those denials after judges ruled that the government had not made a case for excluding the men.
Jaffer said the Morris case "does raise questions about whether the Obama administration has actually retired the practice of ideological exclusions." In decades past, under a 1950s-era law designed to limit the entry of communists and their supporters, the United States barred prominent intellectuals including writers Doris Lessing and Pablo Neruda.
The exact reason for Morris's denial is unclear. But on June 16, at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Morris was given a "refusal worksheet" detailing how he could be denied for engaging in terrorist acts or representing terrorist organizations.
An embassy spokeswoman, Ana Duque, said that privacy rules prevented U.S. officials from elaborating. "It's all between the applicant and the consular section," Duque said. Morris and those who support him, including Human Rights Watch and the Nieman Foundation for journalists at Harvard, contend that the Uribe administration orchestrated the denial because of his work. Uribe has frequently accused Morris of ties to Colombia's largest rebel group, calling him "an accomplice to terrorism" in one speech last year.
Morris, in an interview Friday, said, "If you have proof that I am a guerrilla, then why not put me in jail? Why just this campaign to discredit?"
José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, said there is evidence to show that Colombia's intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security, or DAS, "engaged in a deliberate effort to win cancellation of his visa by linking Hollman Morris with the FARC," the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Vice President Francisco Santos, asked to comment on the case, declined an interview.
According to documents prosecutors have made public, the DAS had begun a campaign to discredit Morris by tying him to the FARC. Among the strategies were plans to "press for the suspension of the visa."
The DAS's possible role in providing the United States with information on Morris has raised concerns among some Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill who work on American policy toward Colombia. A congressional aide who helps shape Latin America policy said that "we have requested, with urgency, a full intelligence briefing on the extremely serious allegations" against Morris.
The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to publicly comment, said the lawmakers suspect "that the DAS blackballed him because he dared to investigate DAS abuses, which now have been verified and are widely known."
It is increasingly clear that the Uribe Administration is behind this orchestration to deny Hollman Morris the visa and the opportunity to study at Harvard because Hollman Morris has been a thorn in the side of the Uribe Administration and one of the leaders in reporting on the still unravelling DAS scandal. This is payback a la Uribe.
The Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, or DAS, is the Colombian intelligence agency but in reality it is a combination INS (it handles immigration and border security), FBI, CIA and NSA. It is a state agency with tremendous power which has been abused by the Uribe Administration to engage in illegal activities that including wiretapping and at least four extrajudicial assassinations. A total of 18 DAS officials, including four of the five DAS directors under Uribe, are being investigated for their involvement in the wiretapping scandal, in which espionage was carried out against judges, foreign dignitaries, opposition politicians and human rights activists, as well as journalists. The scandal, uncovered last year, has reached as far as the members of the Ecuadorean goverment and former Iranian Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Furthermore former DAS director Jorge Noguera stands accused for the murder of four persons as well as contracting out DAS operations to illegal paramilitary groups while yet another former DAS director, Jorge Lagos, declared in sworn testimony this past February that the DAS had directed a "campaign of threats" against trade unionists and journalists.
This past week Colombia's Prosecutor General, Guillermo Mendoza, said he would interrogate four senior aides of Alvaro Uribe in connection with the widening scandal. Among those called to testify before the Supreme Court are former advisors José Obdulio Gaviria and Jorge Mario Eastman (now the Vice Minister of Defense), Presidential Press Secretary César Mauricio Velásquez and Presidential Legal Secretary Edmundo de Castillo.
Though the scandal broke in early 2009, the Uribe Administration would prefer that it go away and has attempted to stonewall the official investigation being conducted by the Fiscalía. But enter Hollman Morris who back in February of this year used his Contravía programme on Colombia's public television channel to level charges directly at Alvaro Uribe as having approved the wiretapping directly and of engaging in a systematic campaign of intimidation against his political opponents. Indeed for a President who has made his security policies the cornerstone of his Administration, it is unfathomable that he would be so unaware of the doings of his main intelligence agency and one wholly under his control.
The DAS scandal is a scandal that a US human rights organization, the Washington Office on Latin America, is calling far worse than Watergate:
Files recently released from the Colombian Attorney General’s office confirm that operations by the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), the Colombian intelligence agency directly under the presidency, ventured much farther into criminal territory than illegal surveillance and wiretapping. The documents, dating especially from 2004-05 but also covering actions before and since, detail DAS operations targeting national and international human rights defenders, journalists, judges, and members of the political opposition. A series of cover pages, which can be seen here, describing campaigns with names like “Operation Halloween” and “Operation Transmilenio,” outline objectives such as: “generating controversy regarding NGOs,” “generating division within opposition movements,” “promoting actions to benefit the government in the 2006 elections,” “neutralizing influence in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,” establishing links between individuals and illegal armed groups, and “neutralizing the destabilizing actions of NGOs in Colombia and the world.”
The tactics outlined in these operations included: framing a journalist by placing him in a fabricated guerrilla video and requesting the suspension of his visa (possibly to the U.S.); conducting sabotage against Constitutional Court judges; making it appear that opposition politicians and nongovernmental leaders had links to illegal armed groups or were engaged in corruption or adultery; stealing passports and ID cards; making threats; using blackmail.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia, the DAS was behind threats against human rights defenders, including the sending of a bloody doll addressed, “for my beloved daughter” to the home of José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective (CCAJAR) president Soraya Gutierrez, and a threat against a journalist who was investigating the 1999 murder of journalist Jaime Garzón.
The DAS files include a memo with instructions that appear to be intended for a DAS agent to carry out a death threat against journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, threatening her daughter. The memo actually provides a script for the agent to read. “Recommendation: make a call near the installations of police intelligence. Don’t stutter, nor take longer than 49 seconds…. Text: Good afternoon. Please is Dr. Claudia Julieta Duque there? Message: Are you the mother of Maria Alejandra? [wait for her to answer]. Well I have to tell you that you don’t leave us any alternative, we told you in every possible way and you did not want to heed us, now even armored cars can’t save you….”
The denial of a visa to Hollman Morris marks a low point in the American commitment to protect journalistic integrity and freedom of the press. It is also a slap in the face to all those who risk their lives to advance the cause of human rights. Indeed, the denial of a visa likely places Hollman Morris' life in danger for the Obama Administration has now endorsed the Uribe view that Mr. Morris is an "accomplice of terror." It is disappointing that the Obama Administration would allow itself to get caught up in an internal Colombian political drama that has yet to fully play out but it is beyond reprehensible that the Obama Administration would side with the Uribe Administration, the worst serial violator of human rights in the troubled history of my beloved country, and in the process set back the cause of peace.
I remain incredulous that it was the Obama Administration that chose to escalate the US military presence in Colombia without so much as a whisper of a debate here in the United States and it is beyond my comprehension how the systematic assassination of trade unionists on the campaign trail mattered but once in office they are seemingly not worth directly noting even as now directors of the Colombian intelligence community are testifying that they engaged in campaigns of intimidation against trade unionists. At least in April 2008, the Colombian state was still denying any role in the assassinations of trade unionists but now that they are freely admitting it, Barack Obama wants to reward Colombia with a free trade agreement.
The realization that the Uribe government has so willfully engaged in illegal activities has been for me, personally, the hardest of blows. I cannot fully express the betrayal I feel having voted twice for Uribe and having supported his government through 2008 unfailingly but in the past two years, the evidence is overwhelming that the Uribe government abused its power, used the power of the Colombian state for its own political ends, and committed unspeakable crimes that sent thousands of innocent Colombians to their deaths and made another four and half million Colombians refugees in their own country. The ends do not justify the means. Defeating the FARC is a national imperative but not at the expense of the rule of law. It is the rule of law that separates man from beast.
And as per the Obama Administration, when human rights activists and journalists are labelled terrorists, that then is a bridge too far. I might have expected this from a Republican Administration but not from a Democratic one. I remain hopeful that this decision may yet be overturned.
For those of you who understand Spanish, here's the February 25, 2010 broadcast of Contravía in which Hollman Morris accused the Uribe Administration of "hunting down" its political opponents.
Meanwhile Joel Simon, the Executive of the Committee to Protect Journalists, is appealing directly to Secretary Clinton to intervene.
The Hon. Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20520
Dear Secretary Clinton:
We are writing to express our deep concern about the U.S. State Department’s denial of a visa that would enable prominent Colombian journalist Hollman Morris to participate in a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. The denial, based on a “terrorist activities” provision of the Patriot Act, is unsupported by any available evidence and may be based on misleading or inaccurate information provided by Colombian authorities.
On June 16, the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá informed Morris that his J1 and B1/B2 visas applications had been denied. Nonimmigrant Visa Unit Chief Scott Renner told Morris he had been found ineligible under section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Patriot Act, which bars those accused of “terrorist activities,” Morris told CPJ. He said U.S. consular officials would not provide a more substantive explanation or any specific evidence for their decision.
Morris, 41, producer of the weekly investigative program “Contravía” for the television network Canal Uno, was selected in May as one of the 12 foreign reporters admitted to the Nieman program for the 2010-11 academic year at Harvard University.
Known for his in-depth coverage of the five-decade civil conflict in Colombia, Morris is a harsh critic of President Alvaro Uribe Vélez. He has been derided by Uribe, high-ranking members of the administration, and President-elect Juan Manuel Santos as an ally of terrorists based on his coverage of the illegal armed actors in the civil conflict, CPJ research shows. These accusations have not been substantiated, CPJ has concluded.
In February 2009, CPJ and Human Rights Watch sent Uribe a joint letter expressing deep concern that unsubstantiated allegations linking Morris to the leftist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) would endanger the journalist’s life. Colombian officials described Morris as “close to the guerrillas” and an “accomplice of terrorism” after he had traveled to southern Colombia to interview senior FARC leaders as part of a documentary on kidnappings in Colombia. CPJ and Human Rights Watch urged Uribe to publicly retract his comments and to abstain from making unsupported accusations against members of the media.
As documented by CPJ, Morris has also been the target of a systematic campaign by the national intelligence agency to intimidate him and discredit his work. The reporter’s phone has been tapped and his e-mails hacked as part of a wider, unlawful spying scheme carried out by members of the national intelligence agency. After an investigation by the attorney general’s office, several former intelligence officials will stand trial on charges of illegal spying. Morris has also been followed, harassed, and threatened on several occasions, forcing him to flee Colombia multiple times. CPJ believes the visa denial is a flawed decision that damages U.S. interests in Latin America and increases risks for Morris in Colombia. CPJ is concerned that the State Department was influenced by Colombian officials who have a record of making unsubstantiated accusations against Morris because of his critical reporting on the government. We urge you to take personal charge on this case, review it at the highest level, and ensure that Morris may participate in the Nieman Fellowship with other leading international journalists.