Press Responses : Monday, December 1, 2003

Rights award calls attention to the plight of abducted -There are more than 40,000 'disappeared' in more than 50 countries, the UN reports




Monday, Dec. 1, 2003 [p. A3]


One of the last foreign trips made by Kimy Pernia Domico, a beloved Colombian Indian activist, was to Ottawa, where he spoke out against a Canadian-funded dam project that threatened to flood out the Ember-Katio Indians.


Two months later, on June 2, 2001, three men on motorcycles kidnapped him at gunpoint in broad daylight from the streets of Tierralta, in Northern Colombia. His abduction galvanized the international community, including several Canadian politicians and human-rights groups, who demanded the release of a man known for his opposition to violence and his environmental activism.


His daughter arrived yesterday in Canada to receive the $25,000 John Humphrey Freedom Award from Montreal's International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development on behalf of her father.


"My father is a great leader who fought for his land and his people. Now he has disappeared, but his spirit is still here with us," said Martha Domico, 27, who began her cross-country tour in Vancouver.


"With the prize we feel that we are not alone in our struggle."


The theme of this year's awards is forced disappearances.


According to the United Nations, there are currently more than 40,000 disappeared people from more than 50 countries around the world; in Colombia, 1,128 people remain unaccounted for, and in Peru 3,006.


"You may associate the 'disappeared' with Argentina and Chile of the 1980s. But disappearances continue today in countries all over the world, especially Colombia," said Angela Laird, with the human-rights centre.


Angelica Mendoza de Ascarza, a 74-year-old indigenous woman from Peru, is the co-recipient of this year's award, to be presented next week in a ceremony in Hull.


She, too, suffered the horror of losing a loved one. In 1983, armed men broke into her home in Ayacucho, a city in Peru's Andean mountains, and took away her 19-year-old son. She was later told he was being held in an army cartel and tortured by his captors. Years of searching turned up nothing; the only ommunication she ever received from him was a note written on a brown paper bag shortly after he disappeared that said: "Please Mum, get a lawyer and some money and try to get me out of here."


Ms. Mendoza de Ascarza, who also arrived in Vancouver yesterday, turned her personal tragedy into a rallying cry for the disappeared, and lobbied for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the government eventually established. The commission issued a nine-volume report earlier this year noting that 70,000 people had died during Peru's 20-year Shining Path insurgency. Many of the victims of the military's "painful excesses" were highland Indians, suspected of collaborating with the Shining Path.


"I continue to search for the truth about what happened to my son. I hold the armed forces responsible and would like to see them brought to justice," said Ms. Mendoza de Ascarza, dressed in a traditional Quechua straw hat and woven shawl.


The indigenous activist is a "real hero" in Peru for bringing international attention to her country's sad legacy of violence, said Madeleine Desnoyers, with the human-rights centre.


Ms. Mendoza de Ascarza hopes the Peruvian government will implement the truth commission's recommendations and bring the military to justice.


"We hope that one day the people who murdered my son will be held accountable. There can be no reconciliation without justice," she said. "Thank you Canada. This is the first time my work has been recognized internationally."


Mr. Domico's daughter also hopes to resolve the fate of her father and bring the paramilitary forces to justice.


Mr. Domico came to international attention after leading a fight to oppose the Urra hydroelectric project, an initiative supported by Canada that ended up flooding thousands of hectares of land occupied by the Ember-Katio Indians.


In April, 2001, at the People's Summit leading up to the hemisphere-wide Summit of the Americas, Mr. Domico testified before a foreign-affairs committee that the Urra project upset the traditional Indian way of life, based on river fishing. It was built with the help of a $18-million loan from Canada's Export Development Corp.


The Colombian government's handling of the project split the 2,400-member Embera-Katio tribe down the middle. Some accepted cash compensation, while Mr. Domico insisted they be compensated with land. The tribe, who live in a vast reservation near the Tierralta, have seen 16 members killed by either guerrillas or paramilitaries over the past two years.