Political prisoners in Colombia now number over 7,500, including 700 captured guerrilla insurgents. The government is accused of violating judicial norms by consigning opponents to prison. Recent publicity on prisoner deaths and hunger strikes highlighted prisoner abuse. This political prisoner catastrophe has contributed to making Colombia a human rights wasteland, as have tens of thousands murder victims, displacement of millions from land, rampant poverty and witch-hunt built on supposed terrorist associations.
As of Aug. 8, Liliany Obando was imprisoned for three years at the high security Buen Pastor Women’s Prison in Bogotá. Her story epitomizes that of other political prisoners. She is charged with rebellion and providing funds for the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, but has been convicted of nothing. Following the nine-month-long investigative phase of her detention, judicial proceedings have proceeded at a snail’s pace.
Class conflict, rural – urban divisions, and impunity for criminals created circumstances putting Obando and other political activists at high risk. Murderous paramilitaries associated with the Colombian military, narco-traffickers, mega landowners and multinational corporations control rural areas. Originally fighting for agrarian rights, leftist guerrillas, the FARC in particular, have waged war for almost 50 years. Alvaro Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010, presided over common graves containing thousands of bodies, U.S. takeovers of seven military bases and paramilitary insinuation into Colombian politics. Political resolution of the conflict ran afoul of ongoing slaughter of leftists and former insurgents belonging to the disappeared Patriotic Union electoral coalition, anti-union violence that has taken 27,000 lives since 1986 and terrorist allegations leveled against advocates for a negotiated settlement. Colombia during the past decade has received some $7 billion in military, police, and prison assistance from the United States.
Courageously, Liliany Obando stepped into this maelstrom. She is a documentary filmmaker, the single mother of two children, ages 16 and six, and at the time of her arrest she was a sociology graduate student at the National University. A week before that, she published a report documenting the killing from 1976 on of 1,500 members of the Fensuagro agricultural workers’ union. Obando served as Fensuagro’s human rights director. She had recently toured Australia, Canada and Europe seeking support for Fensuagro’s educational and advocacy work. Along the way, she gained international recognition both as a spokesperson for the rights of women and rural families and as a critic of repression in Colombia.
Fensuagro, with 80,000 members, is the largest peasant and farm worker union in Colombia. Half its members are landless peasants, 30 percent small landowners, 20 percent sharecroppers and 43 percent women. For decades, conflict over land has been center stage in Colombia. Industrial scale agriculture, mining, oil extraction and hydroelectric projects are well ensconced. Multinational mining corporations, for example, hold concessions applying to 40 percent of Colombian land. Those in charge are on guard against the landless, small farmers and agricultural workers who fight for their rights, many of them African-descended or indigenous. The 1928 massacre by the Colombian army of 3,000 banana workers near Santa Marta set the tone. Liliany Obando, unsurprisingly, was targeted.
Obando describes herself as a communist and survivor of the Patriotic Union massacre. She told an interviewer: “My work has to do with bringing human rights tools and legal material to peasant communities …That’s what disturbs governments, all of them: the fact that there are people out there defending the human rights of the most vulnerable populations.” In prison she advocates for fellow political prisoners, often protesting prisoner mistreatment.
The Colombian regime came across a tool for rounding up or intimidating enemies. On March 1, 2008, its military, relying on U.S. intelligence, decimated a FARC encampment in Ecuador. In the process, troops seized computers belonging to FARC leader Raul Reyes, killed in the attack. Within days, the government took information allegedly derived from Reyes’ email communications to intensify repression that ensnared Liliany Obando. A year later, police functionary Ronald Coy, who handled the seized computer files, testified in court that the alleged material appeared in word documents, not emails, and was thus susceptible to manipulation.
In mid-May, 2011, the Colombian Supreme Judicial Court invalidated prosecution of ex-parliamentarian Wilson Borja, ruling that the government failed to demonstrate a legally valid chain of custody for the disputed computers files. Later, that decision led to the release of political prisoner Miguel Angel Beltran and withdrawal of an extradition request aimed at Chilean communist Manuel Oblate, both charged with supporting the FARC. Liliany Obando and other witch-hunt victims remain in custody.
Judicial proceedings in her case are glacially slow. Ever since prosecutors closed their investigation in April 2009, Obando’s trial has revolved around infrequent public hearings. Yet the legally authorized time period for such hearings elapsed in April 2011, and under Colombian law, Obando should have been released. Nevertheless the court, seconded by an appeals judge, ruled that prolongation of the public hearing phase of her trial was “just and reasonable.” A habeas corpus plea filed on Obando’s behalf was denied in early August. The decision is being appealed.
Reportedly, hearings were delayed by the failure of court authorities to enable witnesses, particularly in Canada, to testify or submit evidence on Obando’s behalf. Her lawyers count on such material to show that Fensuagro, not the FARC, was recipient of funds raised in Canada, also to clarify interviews she gave in Canada and emails she exchanged with her hosts. Failure of a prosecution witness to show up prompted the calling off of at least one hearing.
Meanwhile, repression continues in Colombia, unabated during the first year of President Juan Manuel Santos’ presidency. In Putumayo, police recently arrested four Fensuagro members accused of “rebellion, narcotrafficking and terrorism.” In Sucre, two Fensuagro unionists recently received death threats. Nationwide, one person has been killed every three days during Santos’ first year, according to Justice for Colombia.org.
Organizations advocating for Liliany Obando and other political prisoners call for international support in the struggle for the prisoners’ release. “Each time the Colombian government is condemned on the international stage, a bit more breathing space is opened up for us as union and social movements,” Fensuagro spokesperson Parmenio Poveda last year told an Australian reporter. This campaign is part of a larger mobilization of international support for struggle inside Colombia to achieve a negotiated resolution of conflict there.
Among solidarity groups are those attending to popular struggle in Colombia generally and others focusing primarily on political prisoners. There are several avenues open to persons joining the fight on behalf of Liliany Obando and other political prisoners: One, keep informed and, two, write Liliany Obando. Letters tell her and her jailers that she is not alone. Prison authorities, however, only deliver to her letters written in Spanish.
Her address is: Liliany Patricia Obando Villota
TD 06550093, Patio 7
Reclusorio de mujeres el Buen Pastor
Carrera 47 # 84-25
Entre Rios, Bogota
Liliany Obando’s email address is email@example.com.
In addition, persons working in support of Liliany Obando are urged to call for her release in letters addressed to Colombian political leaders.
Send your letters to:
Juan Manuel Santos, Presidencia de la República, Carrera 8 No.7-26, Palacio de Nariño – Bogotá, D.C., E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
German Vargas Lleras, Ministerio del Interior y de Justicia, Carrera 9a. No. 14-10 – Bogotá, D.C. e-mail: email@example.com
Colombian Office of the United Nations High Commisioner for Human Rights (Officina en Colombia del Alto Comisionado de Naciones Unidas para los Derechos Humanos), Calle 114 No. 9-45 Torre B Oficina 1101, Edificio Teleport Bussines Park, Bogotá, Colombia, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was written for the International Network in Solidarity with Colombia’s Political Prisoners.