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As a new year begins, the International Network in Solidarity with Colombia’s Political Prisoners renews its call for freedom for political prisoners in Colombia. (The present writer is a member of this organization; see http://www.inspp.org.) Indeed, the time is long past for all of those incarcerated because of struggle in the people’s cause, everywhere, to go free!
This report highlights a few of Colombia’s better known political prisoners. Victories for them, we think, would speed the process by which many more can return to their families and political work. The fight for political prisoners takes on urgency now as peace negotiators in Havana enter their third year of talks.
The cases noted below testify to flawed legal processes and political persecution prevailing in Colombia today. The case of Húber Ballesteros is striking in this regard.
Authorities arrested Ballesteros on August 25, 2013 during a nationwide strike for agrarian rights organized by an ad hoc coalition of groups for which Ballesteros served as spokesperson. He’s been in Bogota’s La Picota prison ever since, neither convicted nor sentenced. A judge in May, 2014 ruled against Ballesteros’ plea for home detention because of medical needs; he suffers from diabetes.
International solidarity has mounted on Ballesteros’ behalf. On December 9, the Belgium – based “Stop the Killings” network of 50 human rights groups honored him. Two weeks later Via Campesina, the international peasants’ rights organization, demanded his release. Marking Human Rights Day December 10, Britain’s Unison public service workers’ union, in conjunction with the Justice for Colombia NGO, obtained 7500 signatures on a petition on Ballesteros’ behalf to Colombia’s attorney general. In late November the “Solidar” network of mostly European human rights groups, 60 of them, awarded its “Silver Rose” prize to Ballesteros. Hundreds of parliamentarians endorsed the award. A few weeks earlier, the World Federation of Trade Unions issued a statement urging trade unions worldwide to organize protests demanding Ballesteros’ release.
Ballesteros is the longtime vice president of the National Unified Federation of Agricultural Workers Unions, or FENSUAGRO. By 2005, 37 rural unions were associated with FENSUAGRO, Colombia’s largest farmworkers’ union federation by far. Some 1500 members have been killed since its formation in 1976; 150 are in prison now.
Húber Ballesteros served as one of FENSUAGRO’s international representatives. The mainstream El Espectador news service notes Ballesteros has “always been very critical of the present government, and previous ones, for having promoted in-depth policies of neo-liberalism and social exclusion”.
He is a spokesperson for and founding member of the Patriotic March social and political movement, now assuming a leadership role in Colombia’s new “Broad Front” leftist electoral coalition. He serves on the national executive committee of the Workers’ United Central, the union federation known in Spanish by its initials CUT.
Colombian authorities charge him with “rebellion’ and raising money abroad for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Prosecutors are relying upon supposedly incriminating evidence allegedly taken from the computers of FARC leaders Raul Reyes and Alfonso Cano seized after the Army killed them. The government also welcomed accusations against Ballesteros from Raúl Agudelo Medina, a former FARC combatant who changed sides and faces criminal charges.
“Witch hunt in the university”
Persecution of Huber Ballesteros reflects the Colombian government’s determination to silence its political opposition. It tries to do so through fear, intimidation and removal of its leaders. War on dissenting opinion, that time-tested tool of reactionaries everywhere, is on display in the case of Miguel Ángel Beltrán.
When the Colombian government secured the extradition of this academician and sociologist, he was completing post graduate studies at the Autonomous University of Mexico, where he earned his doctorate degree. Charged with recruiting for the FARC, he spent two years in a Colombian prison where he allegedly endured torture. Yet he went free in May, 2011 after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that evidence taken from seized FARC computers had no legal standing. The government reacted by easing persecution of other leftists similarly accused – but not of Huber Ballesteros, and not, as it turns out, of Miguel Ángel Beltrán.
Beltrán had returned to teaching and research at the National University of Colombia in Bogota, when on order of the Inspector General of Colombia, he was discharged in July, 2014. The pretext was the story, taken from the computer files, that Beltrán was a member of the FARC’s International Commission. The order banned him from employment by Colombia’s public universities for 13 years.
Next, on December 18, the Superior Tribunal of Bogota overruled the acquittal issued by a lower court in 2011. Authorities have issued an order for Beltran to return to prison. He faces a sentence of 100 months, but is free now pending the outcome of his appeal to a higher court. The charge, as before, was “rebellion” evidenced by presumed association with the FARC.
A news report points to prosecutors’ allegations that Beltran “was carrying out political tasks within an illegal organization, spreading revolutionary thought of the FARC through his writings, diffusing ideas of the illegal armed group in international forums, organizing political events at the National University where he urged students to join the ranks of the guerrillas. And he claimed to be forming a research center for this illegal armed group.”
The “Network of Intellectuals for Humanity” meeting in Caracas, immediately issued a statement calling for Beltrán’s release. They rejected “persecution of Colombian academics and intellectuals committed to the people. The road to peace for Colombia also includes full and unrestricted respect for those who promote critical thought.”
Struggle for truth, and survival
Prisoner Liliany Obando’s fight is not over. Advocates for Obando recently sent a letter, now made public, to a National Prison Institute official reminding her that continued failure to hand over requested documents supporting Obando’s pleas for “conditional liberty” violates Colombian law.
Obando, having entered prison on August 8, 2008, departed on March 1, 2012 on provisional release. In June 2013 she was finally convicted on a charge of “rebellion,” sentenced to home detention, and fined the equivalent of $368,347.70. Her 70 – month long sentence includes the 43 months she had already spent in prison. Then despite home detention, authorities incarcerated her again for 15 days in August, 2014, for no obvious reason.
She shares the charge of “rebellion” with Ballesteros and Beltran, and with them, supposed evidence taken from computer files seized from dead FARC leaders. None of the three derived benefit from the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling invalidating such evidence.
Obando, the mother of two children remains confined to her home, hounded by police and informers, and socially isolated.
She, like Huber Ballesteros, joined with FENSUAGRO, in her case as director of human rights. By all accounts she was a charismatic advocate for agrarian rights, and, like him, took that message abroad.
Before her imprisonment Obando, like Miguel Angel Beltran, was an academician, researcher, and teacher. At the time of her arrest, she was working for a master’s degree in political studies in Colombia’s National University – and still is. She is a filmmaker. The Obando films, one on FENSUAGRO, the other on Colombia’s agrarian struggle, speak the truth. They document, in English, epic, dangerous struggle against monumental oppression. These remarkable films, surely indicative of the threat Obando poses from the state’s viewpoint, are accessible here, and here.
In writings and actions, in and out of prison, Obando has advocated and organized for women. She exemplifies struggle by revolutionary and politically conscious women for their own rights and those of their children. Her life story is emblematic of the signal contribution women have made to revolutionary upsurge in Colombia.
Keeping the wolves away
Prisoner David Ravelo’s history, updated recently by the present author, contains a new footnote of poetic justice for Ravelo’s enemy, the leader of the pack he contended with over many years. Former President Alvaro Uribe’s sponsorship of violent right wing paramilitary groups is well documented. In a life full of political action in the people’s cause, Ravelo did much in his home city Barrancabermeja from the 1990’s on to ward off deadly paramilitary attacks. Ravelo publicized Uribe’s ties to paramilitary leaders attacking Barrancabermeja and thus sparked a vengeful counterattack instrumental in putting him in prison in 2010. He is serving an 18-year sentence.
However, a report December 27 proclaims, “Now it’s official; Uribe is being investigated as the one responsible for or promoting more than 3000 assassinations.” Furthermore, “The data are coming out and the circle is narrowing: Álvaro Uribe Vélez, president of Colombia during the period 2002-2010, is the object of an investigation by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a possible author of crimes against humanity.”
In summary, the four prisoners discussed here are symbolic through their beliefs and actions of crucial points dividing Colombian society and provoking civil war. One or more of this small group has struggled against monopolization of land, repression of thought and dissent, persecution of labor, and women’s oppression. They all stand up for a new Colombia, one where the ruling oligarchy no longer has free rein nor where the United States intervenes. That they and other kindred spirits are in prisons testifies to a society at war, no less so than wholesale murders, disappearances, and displacement from land, all so well – known. All eyes are on the peace negotiations in Havana.
W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.