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Criminalization of Social Movements and the Political Opposition in Colombia
Translator’ note: Liliany Obando is a sociologist, documentary film maker, and single mother of two children. She was serving as human rights director for Fensuagro,Colombia’s largest agricultural workers’ union, when, on August 8, 2008, Colombian authorities arrested her. A week previously, Obando had issued a report documenting the murders of 1500 Fensuagro union members over 32 years. Prosecutors accused her of terrorism and belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
After 43 months, Obando left prison on March 1st 2012. She remained under court jurisdiction, because she had not been sentenced or convicted. Eventually, in 2013, a judge, accusing Obando of serving on the FARC’s International Commission, convicted her of “rebellion.” She was sentenced to five years, eight months of house arrest and fined 707 million pesos, ($368,347 USD). The charge against Obando of handling “resources relating to terrorist activities” was dropped.
On April 3, 2014, Obando learned that the Supreme Court had rejected her appeal. Her fine stands. She must serve one more year of house arrest. The government’s case against Obando and other prisoners rests on files taken from computers of FARC leaders seized during a military attack on a FARC encampment in Ecuador on March 1, 2008. In 2011 the Colombian Supreme Court invalidated the legal standing of such material. Obando and her family continue to experience police surveillance, harassment, and media slander. – Translated by W. T. Whitney Jr.
Although we Colombians, especially those of us who belong to social, human rights, and political organizations and labor unions, are used to carrying out our work in risky situations, sometimes things get worse. This is one of those unlucky times. It coincides with the pre-election contest.
In a cycle that repeatedly sends us back to a repressive past – one they don’t want to close down – we are witness to a perverse return to obscurantism and forced unanimity, to dissident thinking being considered subversive, to social protest having to be silenced at whatever cost, and where opposition guarantees are only a chimera. These are practices far removed from the duty of a state, especially one proclaiming itself as the continent’s oldest, most solid “democracy.”
Many years ago, and in tune with the U. S. obsession for transforming the idea of security into state policy, one outcome being anti-terrorism, the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez during his first term (2002-2006) instituted in Colombia the politics of “Democratic Security.” That gave rise to a series of actions damaging to the right to liberty, to guarantees like equality, legality, and judicial norms, and, generally, to an international framework for human rights.
The strategy of arbitrary detentions imposed under the pretext of maintaining security of the state, and for “good citizens,” has its origins there. The modalities used were illegal interceptions, the network of informants, the Law of Justice and Peace and its accusers, and intelligence reports – or battlefield reports. They fueled judicial set-ups.
During 2002-2004, this strategy of the Uribe government entailed the practice of massive incarcerations carried out nearly always within the context of military operations or joint operations involving the attorney general, the police, and military forces. Primary backing came from Decree 2002 of 2002 relating to internal upheaval and also from an attempt at constitutional reform. In the beginning, these incarcerations were confined to supposed “zones of rehabilitation and consolidation.” Their boundaries were set through Decree 2929 of December 3, 2002. Then they spread the length and breadth of the national territory.
Later, from 2004 on, in a change of strategy, massive detentions were converted into selective detentions against specified sectors of the population: unionists, defenders of human rights, social and populist activists from academia, and/or opposition militants. These people were considered dangerous to the state politics of “Democratic Security” then being advanced as part of a return to the dark era of Turbay Ayala and his “Statute of Security.” (1)
That’s where all this recent wave of stigmatization, persecution, criminalization, judicial processing, and incarceration came from. It’s directed against social, labor, and human rights organizations, and opposition political parties. Their members, leaders, and activists at the base are pointed to as being little else but the activists, “civilian guerrillas,” or at least collaborators of the insurgencies, that is to say, their social base. As regards these last, Uribe disregarded their political character and classified them as “terrorist” groups. Once more the concept of political crime was being manipulated.
Juan Manuel Santos, as defense minister in the Uribe government, first made his mark chiefly by implementing “Democratic Security.” Now as president he continues it. He will be able to change its form, but not its essence. Indeed, Santos has turned to acknowledging that armed conflict does exist in Colombia and also, on that account, that the insurgencies have a political character, although he doesn’t say it openly. If it were otherwise, the current process of peace negotiations in Havana would have been inconceivable. Yet he has not altered the treatment of politically – oriented persons facing prosecution, nor does he accept the very existence of political prisoners.
In 2012, Santos, mocking his given word, blocked international oversight of prisons and verification of the situation of political prisoners as called for by the group PeaceWomen Across the Globe. The government had agreed to accept the FARC’s handing over the last prisoners of war they were holding in return for that group’s good offices. (2) The opportunity ended once more with an official denial that political prisoners exist in Colombia.
Judicial handling of persons criminalized under the strategy of “security” and anti-terrorism changed substantially, much to the disadvantage of people being porosecuted. Indeed, a person being investigated for supposed ties with insurgents used to be processed for the political “crime” of rebellion. Beginning with Uribe and then Santos, however, they are now being handled under the logic of anti-terrorist struggle. As a result, members of the social and political organizations who face prosecution are now being blamed for one or more NON – political crimes having to do with terrorist activities. That’s over and above their being judged as rebels. This signifies, primarily, that for persons being prosecuted under this approach, guarantees like due process, legitimate defense, technical defense, and presumption of innocence – among others – amount to very little.
Consequently, we attend audiences of our comrade detainees in specialized courtrooms, not the ordinary ones. In these special sessions, investigations are carried out directed at very serious crimes, thereby removing the allegations from the area of “political crime.” And more: investigation and trial periods end up being extended over a long time and sentences are more onerous.
And as a matter of fact, Colombian justice applies the presumption of guilt, not of innocence. At the start, those involved in such processes are classified as “dangerous for society.” Therefore, having been charged, they know beforehand they are going to prison for a long time and there have to prove their innocence. But inside prison and incarceration establishments, they are treated just like those who have already been convicted. This is contrary to international law dealing with prison populations, which in Colombia is a dead letter. One must not forget, furthermore, that Colombia is one of the countries in the world that most abuses preventative detention. As a result, many people in this situation choose to accept charges against them and thus reduce their time in dark Colombian prisons and not have to wait long years while they prove their innocence.
And as if that were not enough, the institution that, by definition, should keep watch on the state so it fulfills its mandate to guarantee respect for citizens’ fundamental human rights, that is to say, the attorney general, acts in a perverse way. That office has switched over to being an inquisitorial entity that persecutes even public functionaries already absolved through having served their prison terms. Their political rights and rights as citizens are seriously affected.
By way of putting a face on this political tragedy, here are some of the leaders and activist members of social and political organizations who have recently endured judicial processes and are imprisoned: Unionists – Campo Elías Ortiz, Héctor Sánchez, José Dilio, Darío Cárdenas, Huber Ballesteros; From the Patriotic March social and political movement - Wilmar Madroñero; Professors - Francisco Tolosa, Carlo Alexander Carrillo, Miguel Ángel Beltrán Villegas, Fredy Julián Cortés, William Javier Díaz; Students – Erika Rodríguez, Xiomara Alejandra Torres Jiménez, Jaime Alexis Bueno, Diego Alejandro Ortega, Cristian Leiva Omar Marín, Carlos Lugo, Jorge Gaitán; Human Rights defenders – David Ravelo Crespo, Liliany Obando.
The number of political prisoners in Colombia – prisoners of conscience and prisoners of war – exceeds 9500. The worst of it is that there is no calm after prison. The trailing, the threats, the stigmatization continue until many of those who are released – if they are lucky – have to leave the country. And many others remain marginalized and no longer part of their previous social and political organizations, which is regrettable. So too is that purpose of the overall strategy which is to weaken social organizations and the political opposition, and dismember them.
Such are the perverse effects of politics in Colombia centering on judicial processes and criminalization of critical thinking, social protest, and political opposition. We are called upon actively to confront politics like these if we want to put a check on such abuse of power.
Silence is no alternative, nor is inaction.
Freedom for Colombian political prisoners!
Long life for butterflies! (3)
Liliany Obando, Political prisoner, under judgment (subjudice) Defender of Human Rights, Colombia, April, 2014.
1. Julio César Turbay Ayala was the Liberal Party President of Colombia in 1978-1982.
2. The international women’s group facilitated the unilateral freeing of ten soldiers and police by the FARC in 2012 through the women’s promise they would visit political prisoners in Colombian jails.
3. The reference, used in connection with recent conferences and mobilizations in Colombia on behalf of political prisoners, commemorates a movement for freedom for political prisoners that developed in the Dominican Republic in 1959. The expression does honor to the Mirabel sisters there who were jailed and murdered.