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Issue #1539      14 March 2012

Colombia’s political prisoners – growing pressure for freedom and justice

There were mixed signals for the prospects of success for the Colombia Behind Bars forum as delegates gathered in the Colombian capital of Bogotá on February 26 and 27. The FARC-EP (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla group) had replied to a letter from a group of prominent Latin American and European women agreeing to release another group of prisoners of war unilaterally. On the eve of the conference, pressure was mounting for the government of President Juan Santos to respond.


Liliany Obando on her release. (Photo: Kevin Neish - Canada)

Colombia’s minister for justice was on the speakers’ list for the gathering but failed to appear. He later told representatives the above-mentioned Women of the World Acting for Peace that a proposed international commission made up of forum delegates to visit political prisoners would have to be greatly reduced in numbers. The number of prisons to be inspected would have to be cut back. Ultimately, the offer was withdrawn completely – there would be no commission for the verification of the human rights situation of Colombia’s political prisoners on his watch.

In view of reports of continuing neglect and abuse within Colombian prisons, there is still a glaring need for such a commission. The attitude was not unexpected. While it projects a softer image, the Santos government has taken up where its predecessor under President Álvaro Uribe left off. It has been pursuing the goal of complete military victory over insurgents under a policy called “Democratic Security”. Though Santos has formally recognised an armed struggle exists in Colombia, his government continues to insist there are no prisoners of war and no political prisoners with special rights under international conventions. There are only “terrorists”, “delinquents” and their supporters. There are now over 8,000 such people held in Colombian prisons.

Given this intransigence on the part of the government, the announcement of the conditional release of political prisoner Liliany Obando just days after the forum came as a bolt from the blue (see story page 9). Liliany has been an outspoken critic of the human rights record of the Colombian government and had languished in the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) women’s prison in Bogotá for the past three and a half years despite a vigorous international campaign for her freedom. She had never been convicted on the politically motivated charges of “rebellion” or raising finances for “terrorist activities”.

While the government will insist that the decision was made independently by the judge presiding over her case, there’s little doubt the convening of the international gathering in Bogotá led to the breakthrough.

Tales of horror …

I was one of the guests invited to attend the Colombia Behind Bars forum as a representative of the International Network in Solidarity with Colombia’s Political Prisoners, INSPP (www.inspp.org).

That organisation coordinates some of the work of activists in Australia, Canada, Colombia and the US. I had never visited Colombia. I had heard about the wretched human rights situation in the country from Colombian friends and through contact with Liliany Obando during her visit to Australia in 2007. I had heard accounts of the horrors inflicted on rural communities by brutal paramilitaries as they seek to seize land on behalf of mining corporations and other developers. Over four million Colombians have fled their homes to escape the violence of the ongoing land grab.

During one of the sessions of the forum, family members gave accounts of the loss of loved ones in this war on the people of Colombia. One woman held a photo of her nine-year-old daughter who had been taken from school by paramilitaries to be raped, tortured and finally suffocated and dumped. The perpetrators have never been brought to justice.

The impact of such first hand accounts will stay with me for a long time. The knowledge that such horrors are unleashed as a result of the greed and ambition of men in suits working for transnational corporations with headquarters in shiny tower blocks across the globe should haunt us all.

… and inspiration

The presence of a Basque and a Philippine delegate was a reminder that the issue of political prisoners is not restricted to Colombia. Marie Hilao-Enriquez from the Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights pointed out a number of close parallels between the experience of the people and the political prisoners of the Philippines and Colombia. Her optimism shone through despite the grimness of the struggle in her country. Thirty-seven of her human rights advocate colleagues have been killed in recent times.

The lawyers of the Lazos de Dignidad (Ties of Dignity foundation) representing Liliany Obando have their own stories of commitment and survival. Three of the young women who looked after conference guests were forced to leave their hometown on Colombia’s Caribbean coast for the relative (though still precarious) security of Bogotá as the result of increasingly immediate death threats from paramilitary groups. You would never know it from their cheerful manner and seemingly tireless attention to their work.

Ex-senator Piedad Cordoba is a human dynamo and an icon for progressive Colombians though she comes from the same Liberal Party of former President Uribe. Her leadership was evident through much of the February conference. She has been vilified by the corporate media, kidnapped and briefly forced into exile by paramilitaries and lived through several assassination attempts.

Cordoba was made a suspect in the “FARC politica” (FARC politics) stitch-up that arose from information allegedly retrieved from computer equipment that supposedly survived a deadly bombing attack on the camp of the late FARC commander, Raúl Reyes, in 2008. She has been forced out of her senate post for her work in seeking a negotiated settlement to the armed struggle raging in Colombia.

Among the other members of the Women of the World Acting for Peace present at the forum was Mirta Baravalle of the Mothers of the Plazo de Mayo organisation. Those women maintained a long protest against Argentina’s dictatorship demanding to know what had happened to their sons and daughters after they had disappeared during the dirty war against the left in the 1970s and ‘80s. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, wife of illegally ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, made a number of very optimistic contributions at the forum.

Ever-present threat

The forum finished on an unmistakably high note but the realities that the delegates would be leaving behind were evident during the event. Piedad Cordoba noted that two plain-clothes security agents were photographing delegates at the Gabriel García Márquez Auditorium on the opening night. Delegates reported four men with guns showing in their belts walked through the foyer of the hotel where most of the international guests were staying. On the second day of the event several NGOs received a letter from the Black Eagles threatening that the members of the group of prominent women and the international delegates should leave Bogotá or face dire consequences.

Liliany Obando was duly released from prison but into a very uncertain security situation. The government has not committed adequate resources to ensuring her safety prompting an international campaign to obtain guarantees from authorities – go to www.justiceforcolombia.org She could be taken back into custody as the politically motivated trial grinds on.

Colombians working for social justice, peace, freedom for all the political prisoners or even a humanitarian exchange of prisoners on both sides of the conflict will continue to face these sorts of immense challenges day in and day out. Their creativity and energy will triumph in the end but the international community owes it to those brave activists to extend their solidarity to them.  

Next article – Culture & Life – Germs and the global bully

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