UK study-grant for Colombian caught in human rights row

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A COLOMBIAN politician criticised by human rights campaigners for his support of security groups, many of which have been linked to paramilitary atrocities, has received a Foreign Office grant to study at one of Britain's leading universities.

Alvaro Uribe Velez, the former governor of the Antioquia region of the country, is a senior associate member of St Anthony's College, Oxford, where he is attached to the Institute of Latin American Studies. He is researching social policy and education, having been awarded up to pounds 10,000 from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in a Chevening scholarship.

But protesters claim that away from St Anthony's, Mr Uribe Velez's social policy has little regard for democracy.

Last week, Colombian human rights campaigners protested outside the institute. One protester, Oscar Silva, 35, a theatre worker originally from Bogota, said: "We said that [Uribe Velez] is one of the biggest promoters of the Convivir groups."

The Convivir, or Community Vigilance Associations, were set up in 1994 to provide information for the state about potential guerrilla activity. But human rights groups say there is evidence many of the groups act as little more than death squads, killing anyone the government considers "dissident". Last year there were 3,000 politically motivated murders in the country.

The European Parliament last week approved a resolution condemning recent assassinations of human rights workers and calling for the immediate disbanding of the Convivir.

One of the worst atrocities took place at the town of La Horqueta in November 1997, when at least 14 people, including two children, were killed. A paramilitary involved in the massacre was a Convivir representative.

Mr Uribe Velez, tipped to be one of Colombia's presidential candidates in 2002, was yesterday unavailable for comment.

Sir Marrack Goulding, warden of St Anthony's, said the college was aware of the controversy, but that they felt it was not a reason for Mr Uribe Velez not to join them. "We would never have admitted him if we thought he was involved in human rights abuses," he said.