Colombian spies cause trouble in Europe

BRUSSELS, Belgium — That the Colombians were spying on and harassing their own people — tapping judges’ phones, threatening journalists’ children, trailing human-rights workers — seemed scandalous enough.

But recently-discovered documents reveal that Colombia's Department of Administrative Security (DAS) also conducted these activities on European soil, largely in Belgium, and even in the halls of the European Parliament.

And at least one victim of the intelligence agency's “Operation Europe” believes there is a Washington connection.

According to previously secret documents used in Colombian proceedings, Operation Europe’s objective was to “neutralize the influence” of the European Parliament's Human Rights Sub-Committee, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, European NGO workers and other activists critical of President Alvaro Uribe’s human-rights record.

In Brussels, a group of DAS victims has now decided to take the Colombian agency to court, and might decide to do so in Colombia as well as in Belgium, where preparations are already under way.

Meanwhile, a small number of European lawmakers are demanding that the European Union’s free-trade agreement with Colombia, initialed in May by heads of state but awaiting legislative approval, be frozen at least until more facts are known about DAS activities on this continent.

British Socialist lawmaker Richard Howitt is among those leading the charge to hold both the Colombian and EU governments accountable. He has attended several of the trials in Colombia and heard current and former DAS officers confirming the espionage and harassment operations as well as Uribe’s knowledge of them.

“This is potentially a very, very high-level diplomatic issue ... that shouldn’t be underestimated,” he said, equating it in significance with the recent incident in which falsified EU passports were used, allegedly by Israel, in the killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai.

In that case, the EU was outraged and said its citizens’ rights were violated. But despite evidence that their citizens — and even their own institutions — have now been spied on with the aim of disrupting peaceful activities, EU leaders have been silent.

Howitt calls it "turning half a blind eye" and says such tacit support is unacceptable. He surmises that Colombia’s geopolitical importance — particularly being a neighbor of the problematic Hugo Chavez in Venezuela — is saving it from harsher judgment.

"Now is the test on us, in Europe and America," Howitt challenged, "whether we’ll be true to our own values and principles and really reflect and reconsider whether going forward with free-trade agreements is the correct response."

The United States has halted the progress of its free-trade agreement with Colombia due in part to human-rights concerns and funding that previously went to DAS has been reallocated to other Colombian agencies due to what the scandal revealed about its behavior.

But for many victims, the damage done by DAS may already be irreversible.

Paul-Emile Dupret is a Belgian legal advisor for the United Left Group in the European Parliament, where he has worked for 18 years. Dupret said his personal tribulations began back in 2004, when he was involved with protests against the visit of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to the EU. Soon afterward, a posting supporting the FARC guerrilla group — classified as a terrorist organization in both the EU and United States — appeared on the internet in his name, though it was misspelled “Paul-Emiel.”

The note also included genuine snippets of a private email he had sent to other activists from his parliamentary account. Dupret said he’s never even held a meeting with a member of the FARC, but he recognized that this falsified document would be used to set him up as a target for anti-guerrilla paramilitary groups.

He learned recently, through newly uncovered documents, that DAS began working against him at the same time. He concludes they must have enlisted the U.S. government pretty quickly, because five months later, traveling back from Venezuela with an official parliamentary delegation, Dupret said he was pulled out of line during a transfer at Miami Airport and interrogated harshly for five hours — not about Venezuela but about Colombia.

He said he was held in an underground jail with no explanation for 24 hours, experiencing what he calls "a little bit of the ambience of Guantanamo" before being escorted by police to his plane and informed that his permanent visa to the United States would be canceled.

The European Parliament’s attempt to get a U.S. visa on his behalf in 2007 was met with a written notice that he was not eligible because of suspected terrorist activity. A file containing sensitive documents about his case was stolen from his office in the European Parliament.

Then last August, as he flew to Latin America on European Parliament business, an attendant informed Dupret that U.S. authorities had flagged him on terrorism suspicions and thus the plane would have to avoid U.S. airspace at a cost of two hours of flight time and 20,000 euros.

This incident got a lot of press coverage, he said, causing enormous suffering to his family and particularly his younger son, who has had playmates' parents suddenly become reluctant to let them spend time with him. Dupret said everyone from colleagues to cafeteria workers have shunned him at the office and it's given political opponents in the parliament ammunition to work against him.

There’s no way to prove it, Dupret admits, but he said he’s “every day more convinced” of the connection between the DAS surveillance order and the sudden U.S. problems. He’s asked European authorities to convey his “completely clean” record to their U.S. counterparts.

At the same time, he also suspects U.S. authorities are skeptical of their own information. After all, he notes, he routinely attends briefings and meetings with the highest-level U.S. officials, having been personally cleared by the American embassy, which he doubts would be allowed for someone they considered a “real terrorist.”

Contacted about his case, the State Department responded that it was “not aware of any information” that links Dupret with the DAS.

Still, another DAS target, Patricia Verbauwhede of the Belgian Catholic charity Broederlijk Delen, said one reason she purposely avoids traveling to the United States is because she “wouldn’t want to have an unpleasant surprise” like Dupret’s.

Verbauwhede’s name was found in DAS documents by one of Broderlijk Delen’s partner organizations last fall, along with information from intercepted emails and phone calls. The order against her said officers should try to find out if she was having any "improper relationships," particularly with Colombians, in order to discredit her and the organization.

She says at first she didn’t take it seriously. "My first reaction was to laugh about it," she said. "What danger could we have for the Colombian regime?" That dismissiveness soon dissipated as she learned of the huge and often menacing dimensions of the scandal.

In a meeting she and other victims held with the newly-appointed head of DAS, Felipe Munoz, in Brussels, “he admitted everything that happened in the past,” Verbauwhede said, and he even encouraged her to pursue legal options. But Munoz also said he wanted to dismantle DAS altogether, which hasn't happened, and Verbauwhede says she’s been troubled by subsequent DAS justification to maintain such operations based on counterterrorism concerns.

And indeed, documents have surfaced from as recently as May 13 that show continued surveillance orders on journalists as well as on another longtime target, Luis-Guillermo Perez, the Secretary-General of the International Federation for Human Rights, who also lives in Brussels.

Howitt, the lawmaker, promises EU leaders will not be allowed to maintain their silence. "We have to make sure that this becomes a hot political issue," he said. "And we will do so. We will do so."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the Dutch-language NGO, Broederlijk Delen, and to correct the name of the European parliamentary group for which Paul-Emile Dupret works a Belgian legal advisor: it is the United Left Group.