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Activism is a deadly pursuit

The atmosphere of fear in Colombia was palpable as soon as we stepped off the plane in Bogota. Our delegation consisted of trade union leaders from the UK, Canada and the United States; lawyers from the UK and North America; and a group of Westminster MPs. We were met by armed bodyguards who accompanied us throughout our week-long visit.

On the Saturday evening, we got word that the president of the teachers' union in the province of Cordoba had been murdered: gunmen shot him six times, three times in the head, in front of his home. His daughter was seriously injured in the attack. He is the fourth teacher trade unionist to be assassinated this year. Most of the killings are attributed to the right-wing paramilitary groups that operate with absolute impunity and are closely linked to President Alvaro Uribe's Government. Often a government declaration of a person or group being in "rebellion" or linked to the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas is the green light to the paramilitaries.

In all, 9,935 trade unionists have suffered serious human rights abuses - 2,650 of them killed. It is universally acknowledged that Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Suppression of the unions is closely linked to a neo-liberal agenda: where multinational companies wish to invest or acquire Colombian companies, they specify that trade union organisation be liquidated before purchase.

We visited Martin Sandoval, who had been held in Arauca prison for six months without trial. He is the leader of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights, Colombia's largest human rights group. In our press statement released at the end of the visit, we called for his release and that of all other political prisoners held without trial. I am delighted to say that he and 11 other social leaders from the region of Arauca were released from prison on May 14. Their release is a tribute to the international solidarity, including that of our delegation, which has brought pressure on the Government of President Uribe.

We met the deputy attorney general, the minister for social protection, the minister of defence and had a video-conference with the president. This Government engagement with us at the highest level reflects the importance of such delegations to the regime. They are acutely aware of the dangers of negative international publicity to their future plans.

Currently, the Government is keen to secure free trade agreements from the US, Canada and the European Union. Continuing multinational investment in their neo-liberal strategy is dependent on securing them. In all our discussions with the Government, we made our belief clear that human and labour abuses were widespread and that we would be campaigning for no FTAs (free trade agreements) in all our countries until the abuses ended.

Our meetings with the victims and bereaved were harrowing: many giving evidence broke down, and most of the delegation shed tears more than once. The atmosphere under which we worked grew more stressful in the course of our visit. Some of us were photographed by unknown persons at different times on the street; a group of young men in Arauca, who had been present throughout our visit, made shooting gestures at our bus as we left; and our delegation leader received a threatening phone call. As a result, we were given police motorcycle escorts for the remainder of the visit.

The apprehensions we felt gave us only a taste of the desperate conditions under which our fellow trade unionists and human rights activists live and work daily.

David Drever is the former president of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He recently visited Colombia as part of an international labour and human rights delegation.

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