Amnesty International said in a report released Friday that human rights activists throughout the Americas face "escalating levels" of intimidation and violence.
The study, titled "Transforming Pain into Hope: Human Rights Defenders in the Americas," is based on nearly 300 cases in which "state security forces, paramilitary groups and organized crime" threatened, harassed, attacked and killed activists in more than a dozen countries, mainly between January 2010 and September 2012.
"Human rights defenders are systematically harassed, attacked and subjected to unfounded criminal charges in almost every country in the Americas to prevent them from speaking out for the rights of the most marginalized," Nancy Tapias-Torrado, AI's Americas researcher on the situation of human rights defenders, said.
"Throughout the Americas, human rights defenders have been publicly condemned as 'illegal,' 'illegitimate,' 'unscrupulous' or even 'immoral,' AI said.
The London-based rights group noted that activists have been accused of being "criminals, corrupt, liars, troublemakers or subversives; of defending criminals; and of supporting guerrilla groups," adding that "such public criticisms have been voiced by government officials as well as non-state actors."
"Men and women who work to protect human rights are also targeted as they are seen by powerful political and economic interests as an obstacle to major development projects," Tapias-Torrado said.
Among the people habitually targeted for attack, according to AI, are those who work "on issues related to land and natural resources; the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people; abuses against migrants; as well as those working to ensure justice for human rights abuses, plus journalists, bloggers and trade unionists."
Nearly half of the cases documented by Amnesty occurred in the context of land disputes in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and other countries. Several of them were related to "large-scale development projects led by private companies."
In only four of the nearly 300 cases were convictions obtained against those directly responsible.
In countries such as Cuba and Mexico, human rights defenders "have suffered judicial harassment, have been detained on the basis of flawed evidence or have had spurious charges hanging over them for years because arrest warrants are issued then not acted on," the report said.
Tapias-Torrado mentioned the case of a Colombian human rights defender, Jackeline Rojas Castañeda, who was attacked at her home in the city of Barrancabermeja by two armed assailants.
The activist was tied up, gagged and sprayed with paint by the attackers, who demanded she tell them where they could find her son and her husband, a trade union leader.
When Rojas tried to report the attack, staff at the Attorney General's Office initially did not believe her story.
"When authorities fail to protect those who work to defend everyone's human rights and fail to investigate attacks against them, they send a signal that those attacks are tolerated," Tapias-Torrado said.
"Governments must guarantee that human rights defenders enjoy comprehensive protection, which includes as a minimum recognizing the importance and legitimacy of their work, the full investigation of abuses they face and the provision of effective protection measures," the AI researcher said. EFE