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Colombian spies cause trouble in Europe

Is the EU turning a blind eye to Colombians spying on its soil?

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.