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OAS chief under fire for removal of top rights official

MIAMI – An ombudswoman for the Organization of American States is facing criticism that she assisted Secretary General Luis Almagro in a widely condemned effort to remove the region’s top human rights official, The Associated Press has learned.

Neida Perez is required to operate independently from the Washington-based organization’s leadership to act as a sounding board for its employees and act as an impartial arbiter to resolve workplace disputes.

But in recent days, she stepped into the middle of a bitter feud between Almagro and the leadership of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, or IACHR, the region’s top rights watchdog.

Almagro on Aug. 15 informed the IACHR that he would block its unanimous decision taken seven months earlier to extend Brazilian rights activist Paulo Abrão's mandate as head of the autonomously run commission. The decision came on the same day Abrão's four-year contract was set to expire.

Human rights defenders and the United Nations immediately condemned the move as a threat to the IACHR’s independence. But Almagro dug in, saying he was defending mistreated employees who filed 61 “complaints” against Abrão and the commission alleging favoritism, conflicts of interest and impunity for employees accused of sexual harassment.

Perez on Aug. 26 -- two days before Almagro issued a scathing attack on Abrão — sent a text message to several current and former OAS employees requesting permission to share anonymously with the Secretary General some of the complaints and concerns she says she fielded last year while looking into the workplace environment. She added that Almagro was readying a press conference or statement to “put something of transparency and relevancy” to the employees’ complaints.

“Would you be willing?” wrote Perez. “If so, in a few lines, what’s the most relevant that you feel you can share without being identified about the way the irregularities and inconsistencies in the IACHR affected you?”

The text message was shared with the AP by someone who said they felt pressured by Perez's outreach and considered it inappropriate. The person declined to be named for fear of retaliation.

According to the OAS' own General Standards adopted last year, the Ombudsperson must be a “confidential, informal, and neutral professional” who must never “advocate on behalf of any individual.”

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said that allegations of misconduct against the commission, including its executive secretary, should be rigorously investigated. But he said Perez's involvement in the dispute over Abrão raises “legitimate doubts” about her office's independence.

“This intervention is suggestive of an unprecedented political maneuver by the OAS' secretary general,” he said.

Perez, a citizen of Colombia and the U.S., told the AP she is barred from taking sides or participating in public disputes between Almagro and the commission. She says she was contacted by employees who felt mistreated under Abrao’s management with the hopes of sharing their experiences publicly and anonymously.

“I was asked by employees and agreed to give a voice to employees who felt invisible and then shared their testimonies with both Secretary Almagro and the commission,” Perez said.

She says she learned about Almagro’s plans to issue a statement from other OAS employees — not the Secretary General himself. A summary of her findings, based on interviews that took place mostly last year, was delivered Aug. 10 to the commission and Almagro, who in turn recommended the Inspector General’s office open a formal probe, which it has. Until now, there has been no formal investigation or even administrative proceedings taken against Abrão.

Two regional diplomats told the AP that conservative U.S. allies Colombia and Brazil viewed Abrão, who previously worked in the Workers' Party government in Brazil, as too cozy with human rights activists and quick to interfere in domestic affairs. The diplomats spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak to the press.

Almagro's statement criticizing Abrão doesn't refer to any specific complaints against him. Almagro's office said it learned about Perez's outreach to the commission's accusers from the president of the IACHR and has sought the opinion of the OAS' legal department to see if she violated any internal norms.

Almagro was elected as head of the OAS in 2015 with near unanimous support after having served as foreign minister in Uruguay’s leftist government.

Once installed in Washington, he made common cause with the U.S. in opposing Cuba and Venezuela's socialist governments, once even mimicking President Donald J. Trump's line that he wouldn’t rule out using military force to remove Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. His remarks were later condemned by a group of 11 conservative Latin American nations opposed to Maduro.

Almagro, who was re-elected in March with the support of 23 of the OAS' 34 member states, has insisted he has no interest in selecting the IACHR's next executive secretary or impinging on its autonomy. But he said he won't stand by as the rights of civil servants are being trampled on.

"It is extremely serious to ignore these rights, to ignore the complaints," he said in his Aug. 28 statement. “That is no longer passive complicity; it is an active cover-up.”

A former co-worker of Abrão characterized him as a domineering boss who would marginalize and publicly humiliate those who didn’t share his views. The person is still employed by the OAS but said they were under no pressure from their employer to speak out and saw nothing inappropriate in Perez's outreach. They spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Abrão.

Abrão, in an interview with the AP, disputed Almagro's claims of mismanagement and said he personally recommended to several employees that they take their workplace concerns to the Ombudsperson's office. While he wouldn't speculate on why Almagro wants him gone, he said his attempts to reform the commission so it would be more responsive to the region's victims was met with stiff resistance by some employees set in their ways.

“These are natural internal tensions,” he said. “I have always been willing to listen and I am open to any serious and impartial investigation with all rights preserved. But what I can't accept is a summary trial in the media."

Torrens reported from New York. AP Writer Ricardo Della Coletta contributed to this report from Brasilia, Brazil.

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