Now and then one individual stands out as an indictment against injustice. That would be Liliany Obando, incarcerated in Bogota’s Buen Pastor Women’s Prison for almost two years. Her trial has been repeatedly postponed.
Authorities want to move her to another prison, away from family, attorneys, and supporters. The International Network in Solidarity with Colombian Political Prisoners and the Alliance for Global Justice issued an appeal recently on her behalf.
Obando, a sociologist and documentary filmmaker, served as human rights director of Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest peasants’ union. She toured foreign countries, raising money for Fensuagro, which has lost more members to murder, disappearance, and prison than any other Colombian union. Obando issued a report in early 2008 documenting 1,500 Fensuagro unionists murdered at the hands of soldiers and right wing paramilitaries. She was soon arrested, leaving two young children in the care of her elderly mother.
She is charged with “rebellion” and aiding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The government accused at least twelve others similarly. First Obando and then professor Miguel Angel Beltran, another sociologist, are the only two so far to be imprisoned. Widely discredited computer files belonging to FARC commander Raul Reyes allegedly implicate them all. Seizure of his computers followed an illegal U.S. Colombian air attack in Ecuador on March 1, 2008 that killed Reyes.
The Colombian regime used the raid and bogus evidence to instill fear and sow confusion among social movements, notably those fighting the rape of peasants’ land.
Liliany Obando and Fensuagro are emblematic of that struggle. Fictitious agrarian reforms and military invasion of the countryside came first. Over decades four million rural people were displaced, with 75 percent impoverished and 50,000 disappeared or murdered. The U.S. government contributed $7 billion towards the Colombian military’s conduct of a civil war. Repression, human wastage, and U.S. complicity go unreported by the dominant U.S. and European media.
Liliany Obando’s case is beginning to reverberate throughout the activist world, especially among labor unions in Australia and Canada, whom she visited. “Lily’s trial has everything to do with her work with Fensuagro,” writes Alliance for Global Justice spokesperson James Jordan, “The Colombian government is trying to destroy the union,” he adds. “The war in Colombia is built around driving farmers off their land and of course the union is at odds with that goal.”.
The issue of land is one good reason to fight for Obando’s safety in jail and ultimately her freedom. Another is that she epitomizes the situation of Colombian political prisoners.
Colombia’s prison system is particularly odious. The U.S. government has turned a blind eye to 7,500 political prisoners in Colombia who make up ten percent of the country’s prisoners. Prisons there are old. They house almost twice their advertised capacity.
Prisoner rights advocate Agustín Jiménez notes three categories of political prisoners: captured insurgents, those falsely accused living close to guerrilla operations, and human rights activists. Among the latter, writes analyst Azalea Robles, are “unionists, students, teachers, peasants, and ecologists” imprisoned mostly “as terrorists under coarsely patched together judicial proceedings.” Their living conditions are “subhuman” and “The Colombian state is one of the principle torture states in the world.”
Jiménez accuses the Colombian army of retaliating against prisoners through torture. Prisons and military power are central to criminalization of social protest leading to harassment, persecution, and torture of political prisoners. “Prolonged isolation” is commonplace.
Supporters see Obando’s possible transfer to another prison as the regime’s response to her defense of fellow political prisoners subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Imprisoned criminals and paramilitaries serve as enforcers. Many jailed human rights activists linger in jails for several years, charged, never tried, and then released. By contrast, soldiers accused of killing youths and dressing their bodies to look like FARC casualties – the “false positives” scandal – often leave prison in less than 90 days. Up to 2,000 young rural men have been murdered in this way.
On its web site, the Alliance for Global Justice provides addresses of suitable recipients of letters written in support of Liliany Obando. Potential writers are advised to write in Spanish because prison authorities bar letters written in other languages. Or they can use the Spanish version of a model letter, available on the web site.