Colombian ex-president talk at Senate House draws protest

Uribe, sitting on the right, apparently remained unfazed by the protest

Colombian ex-president Alvaro Uribe, sitting on the right, remained unfazed by the protest. Photo: Oscar Webb

• Demonstrators accuse Alvaro Uribe of ‘crimes against humanity’

• Students who infiltrated event dragged out by police and university secruity

Protesters staged a demonstration outside Senate House today in opposition to a talk by a former South American president accused of human rights abuses.

Police and security dragged out demonstrators who had managed to position themselves directly outside the room where Alvaro Uribe, who led Colombia between 2002 and 2010, was speaking.

Around fifty people came out to show their outrage at the event, organised by the University of London’s Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) and Canning House, which was called ‘What price is peace in Colombia?’.

As security guarded the entrance to Senate House, they chanted: “University of London, shame on you!”

The protest outside Senate House reception drew about 50 people. Photo: LS

The protest outside drew about 50 people. Photo: Oscar Webb

Two protesters had covered their hands with fake blood, while another shouted: “Uribe, you’re not welcome. You’re a murderer. Out of the United Kingdom!”

Some held up posters with a photograph of Uribe next to Adolf Hitler, with the question: “What difference is there?” printed on it. Others called him a “war criminal” whose “crimes will never be forgotten”.

Leaflets handed out by the demonstrators alleged that Uribe was “responsible for thousands disappeared, scores of massacres and other crimes against humanity”.

Shortly before 6pm, when the talk was set to start, a police van arrived on the scene. A security official denied the university had called it in.

Soon after, a small group of protesters managed to enter Senate House, positioning themselves outside the room where the talk was held. For around twenty minutes, they chanted loudly and banged on the doors in an attempt to disrupt Uribe speaking.

Security, police and external organisers of the event eventually dragged some of the demonstrators out.

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University security grab protestors who infiltrated Senate House and banged on the doors of the room in which Uribe spoke. Photo: Oscar Webb

One police officer told a protester being forced out: “You are being ejected from the building to protect a breach of the peace.”

After being removed from the building, Adam, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, told fellow demonstrators: “I’m not letting murderers speak at my university.”

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Security push protestors towards south entrance of Senate House. Photo: Oscar Webb

Maham Hashmi, University of London Union black students officer and one of the demonstrators who entered the building, said: “Universities are supposed to be spaces where we can express our outrage at murderers being given a free and unchallenged platform.”

“For external organisers to feel free to assault students on campuses shows the further disconnect between the University of London and students.”

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Police assist security in expelling the vocal students from the building. Photo: Oscar Webb

In July, the university said it was “no longer willing to tolerate demonstrations in Senate House” and warned: “If this policy is not followed then the university will consider protesters to be trespassing on university property and will take all the necessary legal measures to prevent and prosecute such trespass.”

In 2009, Human Rights Watch urged President Barack Obama to raise human rights concerns with Uribe when he was still in power.

They cited “frequent extrajudicial killings of civilians attributed to the Colombian Army”, “ongoing anti-union violence” and “widespread illegal surveillance and wiretapping by the national intelligence service”.

Earlier this year, Colombia’s chief prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary criminal investigation into Uribe over allegations he sponsored a deadly far-right militia as a regional governor in the 1990s.

Uribe denounced the accusations on Twitter as false and based on the testimony of “manipulated prisoners”.

In response to a petition urging the talk not go ahead, Professor Linda Newton, the director of ILAS, argued the institute “has a commitment to providing a neutral space where all points of views pertaining to Latin America can be aired and debated.”

A university spokesperson said: “The Institute of Latin American Studies is a non-political organisation which serves as a neutral forum for debate.”

“Although from time to time some speakers may be controversial… these events add to scholarly understanding of Latin America in general, and, on this instance, Colombia in particular.”

“Contrary to some views expressed by some protesters, Mr Uribe was not given a free and unchallenged platform; the event was chaired by Lord Brennan QC and Mr Uribe’s talk was followed by an extensive ‘Question and Answer’ session, in which his views were subject to challenge and dissent from members of the audience.”

“The event attracted around 30 vocal protesters, most of whom remained outside the building, co-operating with University security staff. A small number of students entered the building, attempted to disrupt the talk and had to be removed from the building.”

“The University thinks carefully about who, and what organisations, should be allowed to use its premises, upholding general principles of freedom of expression within the law.”

It is not the first time a UK university has been criticised for giving Uribe a platform. In 2011, the London School of Economics and the London Business School came under fire for hosting him.

London Student requested comment from Canning House, but has yet to receive any.

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