Free Liliany Obando!

Liliany Obando, closely associated with Colombia’s largest rural labor organization, was arrested Aug. 8 in what police called a “preventive” arrest. In the process, officers of Colombia’s National Police Anti-Terrorism Unit and Criminal Investigation Directorate harassed her children, seized her family’s personal documents and removed left publications.

Images of the arrest scene promptly showed up on national television. The government — the world’s largest recipient of U.S. military aid outside the Middle East — charged Obando with “rebellion” and with “managing resources related to terrorist activities.”

Obando’s incarceration in Bogotá’s “Good Shepherd” women’s prison has occasioned a worldwide campaign on her behalf, promoted especially by Canadian, Australian and European unions responsive to her past pleas for justice on the land. In her Sept. 3 “Open Letter,” Obando describes herself as a “political prisoner, prisoner of conscience, communist activist, and survivor of the genocide against the Patriotic Union.”

Formerly human rights director of the National Federation of Agricultural Unions (FENSUAGRO), when she was arrested Obando was serving as consultant to FENSUAGRO, carrying out a study of 1,500 FENSUAGRO members murdered or disappeared since its formation in 1976.

Analyst James J. Brittain (see, sees Obando as victimized because of her role and that of FENSUAGRO in Colombia’s agrarian struggle. Over decades, mega agricultural operations dedicated to the production of export commodities — bananas, palm oil, sugar and cattle, among others — have eradicated small and medium-sized farm holdings. Power in the form of military violence wielded by paramilitaries and the state has removed an estimated 4 million Colombians from the land. FENSUAGRO, which represents 80,000 members and 37 farmers’ unions, has stood in the way.

FENSUAGRO has agitated for improved wages and working conditions, instigated organizational and infrastructure changes affecting small producers and pioneered education projects covering sustainable farming and human rights. According to Brittain, the Colombian government views the widely-traveled Obando — a respected filmmaker and academician — as the principal link between FENSUAGRO and unions, religious groups, solidarity networks and social justice organizations throughout the world. In view of some 500 FENSUAGRO assassinations since 1976, including 20 percent of unionists killed in 2007, the government sees that link as dangerous indeed.

Liliany Obando has been targeted for another reason: distraction is the current prescription to shore up a government notorious for crimes committed in the pursuit of wealth for the few. Obando lists these crimes as: “bribery that favored Uribe’s reelection,” links between the government and paramilitary enforcers, the failed paramilitary demobilization, illegal military incursions outside Colombia, attacks by President Alvaro Uribe on judicial independence, and finally, the government’s extradition last May of paramilitary chieftains to the U.S. to forestall testimony on relations with politicians.

To divert attention from these embarrassments, the government has targeted leftist activists including Obando. They are accused of support for terrorists by virtue of ties with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) alleged by Colombia’s Attorney General and Defense Minister on May 22. It is claimed Obando provided the FARC with money raised for FENSUAGRO.

Others named with Obando include TeleSur journalist William Parra; legislators Gloria Inéz Ramirez, Gustavo Petro and Wilson Borja of the center-left electoral coalition Alternative Democratic Pole; and liberal Senator Piedad Cordoba and Communist editor Carlos Lozano who have sought humanitarian release of FARC-held prisoners.

The Colombian government bases allegations of FARC connections on material derived from computers seized March 1 in Ecuador shortly after FARC second-in-command Raul Reyes and 21 others were killed in a U.S.-assisted raid. Reporting on the creation, modification or deletion of 48,055 computer files while they were in Colombian custody, the international police agency Interpol cast doubt on government claims about the computers. Liliany Obanda also denounced government-inspired media allegations of a love relationship with Raul Reyes.

The new Australian union-supported group Peace and Justice for Colombia has spearheaded an international campaign to free Liliany Obando. The group’s web site,, provides information, news reports and a petition on her behalf as well as addresses for recommended recipients of messages of support.

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