Claudia Duque: psychological torture in Colombia

Claudia Duque

Claudia Julieta Duque Orrego is a leading investigative journalist in Colombia and a recipient of the Courage in Journalism award. She works for Equipo Nizkor and Radio Nizkor, and is a member of FLIP (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa) and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in the UK. Her reporting has often focused on crime, corruption and human rights abuses.

In August 1999 the Colombian journalist, satirist and peace activist Jaime Garzón was shot five times by gunmen in Bogotá in broad daylight. Jaime Garzón was a household name, and his murder created a huge impact. Duque explains:

“He was the Charlie Chaplin of Colombia. When he was murdered it was a big shock – not just for the media but for everyone.”

The murder was a turning point, creating an impetus to finally end the impunity for violence against the media. In Colombia at the time, Duque says, 12 journalists were killed every year on average.

“There was not any justice at all in the situation. It was a landmark case we needed to work,” explains Duque. “My solution was that journalism must be part of the process.”

Two years later, in 2001, with no killers brought to justice, Duque began actively investigating Garzón’s murder – “inside the process but also outside the process” – looking at all possible angles, including corruption and conspiracy. Duque convinced Garzón’s brother to give power of attorney to a good, trusted lawyer, who could properly represent the family in the legal process and give Duque access all the documents and information needed to investigate the case.

However, shortly after she began investigating the murder, Claudia Duque herself became the target of intimidation, harassment and threats. Duque was followed in public places and had threatening phone calls. She always wrote down the number plates of the cars which followed her and investigated them. She was able to trace one of the cars back to the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS – Colombian secret police).

In July 2001 Duque was kidnapped in a taxi for a number of hours, robbed, and told to “let the dead rest”. Shortly after, she went into exile for her own safety. She returned in 2002 and continued her investigation.  However, the threats continued, and it appeared that the people harassing and threatening Duque were intercepting both phone calls and emails.

As her investigations into Garzón’s unsolved murder progressed, the harassment intensified. She explains:

“In the middle of this process I became aware that the DAS was behind a cover-up to prevent the identification of the real perpetrators of the crime. As I realised it, the situation worsened.”

When she did not stop working on the case, the harassment increased to death threats and threats against her young daughter, María Alejandra Gómez. Duque decided to flee the country again with her daughter.

When she returned to Colombia in 2006 the government provided Duque with security and safety measures because of the extreme risks she was facing. The safety measures included an armoured vehicle and a driver who also worked as unarmed bodyguard.

In 2007 Duque filed a complaint against the DAS and the Ministry of the Interior at an Administrative Tribunal, because the government removed her security measures. She argued this decision was violating her rights to family, life and her right to physical and psychological integrity. In middle of this process, the DAS presented, as proof against Claudia, several intelligence reports gathered by her security personnel.

In the meantime, Claudia and her daughter were forced to leave Colombia again. Between 2001 and 2008 the two women left the country numerous times. However, when it was safe to do so, Duque kept returning to Colombia to continue her work. In October 2008, when she was in the exile, the Constitutional Court ordered DAS to allow Duque access any files they had about her. This decision gave her the necessary strength to return to her country once again.

The smoking gun

It’s extremely rare, almost unheard of, for victims of state harassment to be able to see documents which definitively prove both what occurred and who was behind it. As a trained investigative journalist with now unprecedented access, Duque was able to conclusively demonstrate that the DAS was behind her persecution.

Duque was able to show that the DAS had ordered years of surveillance, illegal interceptions, harassment and intimidation against her. She could even prove that this was directly related to her investigative work around Jaime Garzón’s murder. She found a manual written specifically on how to harass her, allegedly written by DAS Sub-Director José Miguel Narváez, who has recently been convicted for ordering Garzón’s murder.

Duque’s case also uncovered evidence that the DAS had a wider campaign of mass surveillance and harassment of other journalists, NGOs, human rights defenders and even judges. The wire-tapping revelations became a national scandal (escándalo de las chuzadas) and led directly to the DAS being dissolved and replaced with the National Intelligence Agency (Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia, or DNI).

In November 2009 Duque and her daughter were granted security measures by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.

At that time, the investigation into the threats and attacks suffered by Duque had been going on for five years with no results – amounting to impunity for the perpetrators. Duque presented the evidence to the prosecutor that investigated her case and argued that the deliberate and illegal campaign of surveillance, intimidation and harassment – often threatening her young daughter – amounted to psychological torture.

In March 2013 Colombia’s Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of seven high-ranking former DAS agents for the crime of aggravated psychological torture in incidents from 2001 onwards.

Any form of torture – physical or mental – is illegal under international law, but as psychological torture is much more difficult to prove, this became the first ever case taken to trial in Colombia and one of very few in the world. It was the result of years of hard work by Duque and her colleagues, as well as a number of international human rights and national press freedom organisations. MLDI has supported Duque in the case, with direct support in the form of legal fees for two trials.

Three former members of DAS have pled guilty and been sentenced, including former Chief of Intelligence of DAS Carlos Arzayús, and the deputy directors of Technical Intelligence, Armando Rubiano, and Intelligence Operations, Hugo Daney Ortiz. All of them served between four and six years in prison, despite being sentenced for much longer prison terms.

In 2015, four other high-ranking DAS officials were tried in the specialised Penal Courts in Bogotá for aggravated psychological torture. One of the cases ended in November 2017, but one year later the court’s final decision is still pending. Ronal Rivera, the only defendant detained in one of the cases, was released last July. The other trial, against former DAS deputy director José Miguel Narváez, and the Intelligence directors Giancarlo Auqué (currently a fugitive) and Enrique Ariza has been stalled for a year.

Ariza had fled to the United States, but in April 2017 Duque managed to get him deported back to Colombia to face justice, after presenting her complaint before the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center (HRVWCC) of US Homeland Security.

In October 2017 Colombia’s Attorney General stated that the psychological torture was a crime against humanity and, as such, was not subject to any statute of limitations. However the case is not concluded yet. At the beginning of 2018, four other former DAS agents, including the deputy director Emiro Rojas, were sent to trial, but after several months, the judge has not even scheduled the first hearing.

Duque and her daughter still remain under threat. What motivates a person to keep going despite these huge threats?

“I always ask myself the same question. The only answer for me is the Colombian people – my work as a journalist, especially as a human rights journalist, is to give them a voice.”

“My main concern right now is about impunity,” says Duque. “In 2018 there have been more than 90 death threats against colleagues”. Threats against Duque are not yet a thing of the past, either. “They want me to stop looking. They want me to quit,” she says.

Taking up the baton

Claudia Duque hasn’t quit yet. Meanwhile, her daughter María Alejandra Gómez, who was a child when the threats and attacks began, is now fighting for justice herself – and is a fully qualified lawyer. In October 2018 Gómez filed a complaint – the result of over a year’s work – before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for the persecution she and her mother endured from 2001-2008, as well as for the successive threats and attacks that both women have suffered over the years.

Duque said:

“it’s very nice for me to see that girl turned professional, backing her mother in this whole fight. It is also a very nice message that I protected her to the fullest and now that she is out of the country developing as a woman and a professional, she decides to face and take charge of her own fight for justice.”  

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