UN says Colombia persecuting human rights workers

BOGOTA, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Human rights activists in Colombia are being persecuted and subjected to arbitrary arrest by state security agents, Margaret Sekaggya, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, said on Friday.

Victims also blame leftist guerrillas and other armed groups for abuses, she said.

Colombia's conservative president, Alvaro Uribe, Washington's top ally in South America, has long faced criticism for the country's poor record on rights.

"A prime reason for the insecurity of human rights defenders lies in the systematic stigmatization and branding of defenders by government officials," Sekaggya told reporters at the end of a two-week fact-finding mission in the country.

"Human rights defenders have been repeatedly accused by high-level government officials of being, or colluding with terrorists or guerrillas," Sekaggya said.

The persecution, often involving illegal intelligence gathering, has led to "unfounded criminal proceedings," she added.

Colombia is in a 45-year-old war involving Marxist rebels and other armed groups funded by the country's cocaine trade. Uribe is highly popular for his crackdown on the guerrillas, but human rights violations remain a serious problem.

Asked whether Colombia's armed forces and agents from the national intelligence agency, known as DAS, were involved in rights violations, Sekaggya said, "Violations are also being committed by security agencies."

A former judge from Uganda, Sekaggya expressed concern over a scandal involving DAS, which has been accused of eavesdropping on human rights campaigners, politicians, journalists and Supreme Court judges.

"I urge DAS to stop it immediately," she said.

Uribe said on Thursday the scandal-ridden DAS should be dismantled, suggesting the national police could take over many of its responsibilities.

Over 40 DAS agents, including four former agency chiefs, are being investigated over the telephone-bugging accusations.

U.S Democrats have stalled a trade deal with Colombia, arguing that Uribe must do more to prosecute rights violators. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Peter Cooney)