David Ravelo, Colombian political prisoner – free at last

Colombian authorities on June 20 released prisoner David Ravelo. In anticipation of his release, Ravelo’s lawyer Reinaldo Villalba declared: “Colombian justice committed a most serious injustice and error in sentencing David Ravelo Crespo to 18 years for a crime he did not commit.” Villalba called Ravelo’s case “one more of the state’s famous façades of justice used for jailing revolutionary leaders and leaders of the Colombian left and people’s organizations.”

Ravelo, who was arrested and jailed in September 2010, had led the defense of his own people in Barrancabermeja against paramilitary attacks.  Ravelo, a member of the Central Committee of Colombia’s Communist Party, founded and directed that city’s CREDHOS human rights organization. In 2009, the Catholic diocese there honored Ravelo with its San Pedro Claver award.

False testimony

The Colombian state’s case against Ravelo violated all sorts of judicial and prosecutorial norms. Prosecutors relied on the testimony of former paramilitary leader Mario Jaimes, alias “El Panadero.” (Jaimes is serving 40 years in prison for his role in organizing massacres in Barrancabermeja in 1998 and 1999. Ravelo had taken the lead in exposing his crimes.)

Colombian law provides that paramilitaries who disclose their crimes go to prison for only eight years, or less. Jaimes did confess but to gain favor with authorities, he falsely accused Ravelo of participating in the murder of a Barrancabermeja city official in 1992. This was the crime for which Ravelo was charged and jailed.

While in prison, Jaimes bribed and pressured witnesses against Ravelo. It turned out also that Ravelo’s prosecutor had himself served a prison sentence for having participated in the disappearance and presumed murder of a young man. These irregularities became the basis for Ravelo’s appeals, which failed.

The peace process

According to Villalba, Ravelo has been freed as the result of an order from one of Colombia’s tribunals “for the enforcement of sentences.” The tribunal was implementing Law 1820 which Colombia’s Congress passed in December 2016 to fulfill goals of the recent peace agreement between FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government. According to Law 1820, prisoners who have served at least five years, both former combatants and “social leaders held because of their work as activists,” are eligible for pardon and release.

But Ravelo will still have to appear before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a tribunal created under the peace agreement for determining pardon or punishment.  According to Villalba, Ravelo will comply – when the tribunal actually convenes. But he will maintain his innocence in the face of Jaimes’ additional accusation that he had links with the FARC. Villalba’s hope is that his client’s case will be presented to the Supreme Court of Justice, and Ravelo will be cleared of that charge.

Jaimes and another unnamed witness are set to go to trial for making false accusations against Ravelo. Villalba predicted Ravelo will resume his interrupted political activities, but expressed concern for his safety in Barrancabermeja, where paramilitaries are still active.  Ravelo will be seeking reparations for damages to himself, his family, and social organizations he was involved with.

International support for Ravelo

Ravelo’s fight for his freedom attracted international solidarity. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had been reviewing his case, and Ravelo’s lawyer still wants “the inter-American system to recognize that the case involved political persecution and an arbitrary criminal process – more, that is, than the innocence of David Ravelo.”

For Villalba, Ravelo is an “example for judicial authorities who, sooner than later, must concede liberties to social activists in struggle who have been arrested for organizing or participating in social protests. They are not criminals but have rights.”

The saga of Ravelo’s struggles, persecution, and liberation reflects divisions that have long characterized his country’s tormented political history. The many in Colombia have gone without the means even for surviving. And the privileged few have laid claim to their nation’s wealth through the exercise of power resting on violence. Beginning with the Cold War, the United States provided backup support for these forces.


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.