January 5th update: It seems that O’Grady has been up to such reckless journalism for a while. Check out this excellent piece by Phillip Cryan from 2004.
A little less than a year ago I wrote about Peace Community fears that doctored testimony from alias Samir, a recently demobilized FARC leader from the region, would be used to discredit and harm the Community. Over the past few months those fears have been realized, mostly recently in no less than the Wall Street Journal.
On December 13th, Mary Anastasia O’Grady published a column in which she claimed, based solely on a conversation with Samir, that the Peace Community and its Colombian supporters have had close ties with the FARC. Not only that, but she makes inferences that Amnesty International and Peace Brigades International (an accompaniment organization like FOR) have supported such ties.
Now it’s no secret that I’m no fan of O’Grady’s, but I am appalled at her dangerous and irresponsible journalism. Dangerous, because in a country like Colombia, such accusations and insinuations put both Community and PBI members at risk. Irresponsible because as a veteran journalist, O’Grady should know better than to make serious assertions based upon a sole, and highly unreliable, source.
Why is Samir unreliable? As a rule, testimony of ex-combatants is untrustworthy. Human Rights First and the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others, have criticized the use of testimony of ex-combatants, who receive economic and judicial benefits in exchange for their testimony. It’s to their benefit, in other words, to say what the military wants to hear. To cite one example, last August I described how an ex FARC collaborator admitted to receiving payment from an Army official to testify that the FARC committed the 2005 massacre of eight Peace Community members in retaliation for one of them supposedly leaving the guerrilla group, in an attempt to cover up the Army’s participation in the crime.
In addition to such a precedent, Samir presumably has personal reasons for defaming the Community. As I explained that post last year, the Community and Samir have a conflictive history. The Community had publicly denounced Samir for his responsibility in the deaths of various Community members in years past – including young children. In turn, Samir openly criticized the community for not siding with any armed actor (presumably he wanted them to side with him).
Nor is the Peace Community alone in denouncing Samir and his accusations. In November non-Peace-Community community leaders sent a letter to Colombia's high courts denouncing the dozens of murders Samir committed and/or ordered while he was a FARC leader in the region, and vehemently denying the claim that he organized them to support the FARC.
The column came out just as a three-day hearing in the case against army officials for their participation in the 2005 massacre was about to begin. I am not so sure this was a coincidence. O’Grady’s columns have made it clear she is chummy with the Uribe administration, and I would assert that setting up her interview with Samir to talk about the Community was part of a strategy to discredit the victims of the massacre in an attempt to deflect and diminish the military’s culpability. It’s clear, though, that she finds the Peace Community more culpable that the Colombian army: “According to Samir,” she writes, “the peace community helped the FARC in its effort to tag the Colombian military as a violator of human rights.” As if extrajudicial executions and massacres didn’t do enough to make it clear that the Colombian military violates human rights.
Not only do FOR and PBI, who have years of experience accompanying the Peace Community and observing on a daily basis the actions of its members, know the claims of Samir to be false, but the Peace Community’s legitimacy and right to exist have been recognized by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which issued protection measures in 2000 and ratified them in 2008. But apparently for O’Grady, the word of a murderous ex-guerrilla is more reliable.