Arrest of human rights activist in Colombia under scrutiny

Liliany Obando, a sociologist, documentary film maker and mother of two children, was serving as a fundraiser and human rights director for the Fensuagro agricultural workers' union in Colombia when she was arrested on Aug. 8, 2008. A few weeks earlier, her report on 1,500 union members who had disappeared or were murdered had been published.

Fensuagro, with 80,000 members and 37 union affiliates, is Colombia's largest farm workers union. 

Many Fensuagro members, subjected to paramilitary terrorism, have been driven off small land holdings, which are now in the possession of big landowners. Engaged in large scale agricultural, mining and infrastructure projects, landowners see unions like Fensuagro as contrary to their interests.

Four million Colombians have been pushed off their land, half of rural Colombians live in poverty and thousands of unionists, indigenous peoples, students and leftists have been killed or disappeared. Prisons and detentions are links in a chain of repression serving the well-to-do. The U.S. government has lent a helping hand through Plan Colombia, its massive military aid program. It makes sense that the growing movement of solidarity with Colombian political prisoners is an international one.

For foreign unions and human rights groups supporting her, Liliany Obando has achieved emblematic status among Colombia's 7,500 political prisoners. In January, she gave an interview that has circulated widely on Spanish language political websites, and she participated in the latest in a long series of hearings in her case.

A security official's testimony at the hearings was consistent with information Obando's lawyers had extracted from witnesses at two brief trial sessions and other hearings over her years of incarceration. The whereabouts over three days of supposedly incriminating computer files turns out to be as much a mystery now as it was almost three years ago. Documentation of a chain of custody back then is still lacking. The files turned out to be easily altered documents rather than emails, as claimed by the Colombian government. And the government did manipulate the files, suggests Obando's lawyer.

The Colombian military allegedly took custody of the files from computers seized when it overran a campsite of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in March, 2008. A U.S.-assisted raid caused the death of FARC commander Raul Reyes, the computers' owner. The government says material found in the files showing Obando in league with Reyes proves the charge of terrorism against her.

Although 11 other opposition activists and journalists have been investigated on similar charges, she's the only one who went to jail. Judgment in her case has once more been put off. The defense is trying to secure Canadian unionists' testimony to the effect that their donated money was going to Fensuagro rather than to insurgents.

Obando has a lot of company. The U.S. government has funded rebuilding of Colombian prisons, thereby contributing to an increase in prisoners from 63,000 in 2007 to 106,000 in 2010. In the past four years, there's been a 300 percent hike in arbitrary jailings.

Interviewed in late January, Liliany Obando not only provides a first-hand view of a political prisoner's struggles and hopes, but also assures her supporters that resistance in prison is a collective struggle.

For text of the interview with Liliany Obando, see here.

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