There are currently hundreds of political prisoners in Colombia's jails.
They include numerous trade unionists, student activists, community and indigenous leaders, human rights defenders and academics - all imprisoned for their opposition to the Colombian regime. Most are jailed without trial, though in the few cases in which people are convicted they often face up to 40 years in prison for 'rebellion' - a trumped-up charge that the authorities use against their opponents.
Political prisoners are kept in appalling conditions in overcrowded jails and are often denied medical attention, exercise time and educational opportunities. Many are tortured when first arrested.
In women’s prisons, children under the age of three are imprisoned with their mothers - but when they reach three they are taken away and sometimes put into the appalling Colombian 'care' system.
The regime is clearly trying to silence people by locking them up. We are currently campaigning on six prisoners.
In the morning of Saturday 4 January 2013, the head of International Relations for the Patriotic March, Francisco Javier Toloza, was arrested and put in jail. The He is being accused of “rebellion”.
Francisco Toloza has been an active figure in the university struggle in Colombia. He has campaigned as both a student and a lecturer to defend and improve the public education system. He has also run capacitation sessions for trade unionists and other social organisations and has written extensively on trade union education methods. As is often the case however, his political activities have made him an enemy of certain members of the Colombian state who continue to use the legal system to silence opposition.
The detention of Toloza adds to the often contradictory approach of the Colombian government to the peace process as Toloza himself was one of the organisers of the national peace forums which sought to increase civil society participation in the peace talks. The words of the academic which were recorded as the peace process entered its first phase are as true now as they were one year ago: “the armed and social conflict which Colombia suffers will not be resolved until a solution is found to the structural causes of the conflict, and these are most notably the lack of political guarantees”.
Huber Ballesteros was arrested on Sunday 25th August in Bogotá accused of financing terrorism and rebellion. The main witness in the case against him is paid by the state and has testified in 35 other cases against social activists. Huber is an elected member of national Executive of Colombia’s largest trade union federation, the CUT, the Vice President of FENSUAGRO, Colombia’s Agricultural Union and a longstanding partner of UNITE the Union and the United Steelworkers of America, and the National Organiser for the Patriotic March, a social and political movement grouping over 2000 organisations.
He is currently being held in La Picota prison in Bogotá.
His arrest came in the midst of mass industrial action which was taking place around the country in the agricultural, health, transport and energy sectors. Huber was one of the leaders of the strikes and one of the 10 person committee set up for any eventual negotiations with the Government.
Huber was arrested days before he was due to travel to England to address the 2013 TUC Conference as the official international guest of the TUC.
On 14th September 2010 David Ravelo Crespo, Colombian human rights activist and journalist was detained by the Colombian authorities, falsely accused of “aggravated homicide”. On 4th December 2012, Mr. Ravelo was convicted and sentenced to more than 18 years in prison and is now being held in La Picota Prison, Bogota.
Mr. Ravelo is a member of the executive board of the human rights organization, the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS), and a leading member of Colombia’s largest human rights coalition, the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), in the Magadelena Medio region. Mr. Ravelo played a key role in bringing members of the Colombian military to justice for human rights crimes and led on exposing a deeply incriminating meeting between former President Uribe and paramilitary leaders in the Colombian media. Mr. Ravelo also worked closely with USO, the Colombian oil workers’ union, in the Magdalena Medio region, a hub of USO activity. It appears that he is being made to pay for speaking out against human rights abuses.
There were severe irregularities in Mr. Ravelo's case:
Mr. Ravelo was detained for more than two years without being convicted of any crime. The investigation excluded evidence submitted by the defence and the legal process suffered severe delays. Indeed, the final verdict was delayed by over 6 months.
The principal witness in the case against Mr. Ravelo is imprisoned paramilitary, Mario Jaimes Mejía, alias “El Panadero”. Mejia’s prison sentence was reduced from 40 to a maximum of 8 years in exchange for his testimony and he is in prison as a direct result of Mr. Ravelo’s human rights work.
The investigation was led by William Pacheco, Public Prosecutor 22 of the National Antiterrorism Unit, who should have been considered ineligible for public office as he was dismissed from the police force in 1991 after being implicated in a forced disappearance.
The case had been closed by the regional Attorney General’s Office in Barrancabermeja, but was then re-opened by the then National Attorney General, Mario Iguaran, who transferred the case to Bogota and assigned it to the National Anti-Terrorism Unit.
Justice for Colombia, along with British unions, lawyers’ organisations and the Parliamentary Friends of Colombia, representing over 80 members of the British parliament, raised Mr. Rabelo’s case repeatedly with the Colombian authorities, both directly, and through the British government and Embassy in Colombia. Click here to see a letter from the Parliamentary Friends of Colombia on David’s case. Other letters from supporters are also available to view, including from Haldane Law Society and Justice for Colombia North West and Amnesty International Manchester Group.
Click here to see a joint declaration by Justice for Colombia and other international NGOs on Mr. Ravelo’s conviction.
Mr. Ravelo’s son, also called David Rabelo, has helped lead the campaign for his release and has received death threats since Mr. Ravelo's conviction. JFC continues to campaign for the protection of David’s family.
In the months leading to his arrest Mr. Ravelo also suffered repeated death threats from paramilitaries and is one of several leading members of human rights organisation MOVICE to be targeted with false accusations and imprisonment. According to a MOVICE report, abuses against their members increased by 44% during the first 12 months of the Santos government. Click here to read it..
Members of human rights group CREDHOS, of which Mr. Ravelo is a key figure, also continue to be targeted as a result of their work. On 13th January 2012 in Barrancabermeja Mr. Abelardo Sánchez Serrano, an executive member of Credhos, was threatened by armed men on a motorbike who warned him “We should stop denigrating state forces, we already have one son of a bitch guerrilla from Credhos in prison and if it’s necessary, we will do it to the others to silence them.”. The Inter-American Commission awarded Credhos with “cautionary measures”, obligating the Colombian state to provide them with protection; however this is yet to be fulfilled.
Speaking about his father and the support so far received, Mr. Ravelo’s son, also called David Ravelo, said, "My father is calm and will prove his innocence and regain his freedom because this is all a crude judicial set-up." He has received solidarity from thousands of people… "On behalf of my family we express our gratitude for this support and ask everyone to remain firm and strengthen demands for an end to the persecution of human rights defenders".
A video interview with Mr. Ravelo’s lawyer since his conviction is available here.
The FENSUAGRO Three
(left to right) Alexis Arroyo, Eulogio Tapiero and Manuel Marquez.
During the summer of 2011, six members of Fensuagro, the Colombian agricultural workers’ trade union, were detained in the region of Putumayo. Alexis Antonio Arroyo, Eulogio Tapiero Galindo, Manuel Antonio Marquez and Telmo Cuero Tegue were imprisoned on 22nd June, executive member Climaco de la Cruz Rodriguez on 30th July, and Faustino Carabali Rodriguez a week later on 7th August 2011. In February 2012 Telmo Cuero was absolved and released. In December 2012, Climaco de la Cruz and Faustino Carabali, held in a separate case, were also freed, on the basis of expiration of the legal period for pre-trial detention, following an appeal by their defence. However, the case against them continues, and the remaining three - Alexis Antonio Arroyo, Eulogio Tapiero Galindo, Manuel Antonio Marquez - continue to be detained in Mocoa Prison, Putumayo.
The cases against them are based on the testimonies of supposed former guerrillas and paid informants; unreliable evidence that is often used in false cases against trade unionists. They are just three of more than 75 Fensuagro members currently imprisoned.
In February 2011 all six of those originally detained took part in a high profile event highlighting human rights abuses in Putumayo. It appears their detention is an attempt to silence them.
On 12th February 2012 a verdict was handed out in the case against Telmo Cuero Tegue, Alexis Antonio Arroyo, Eulogio Tapiero Galindo and Manuel Antonio Marquez. While Mr. Cuero was absolved and released immediately, the other three prisoners were convicted of “rebellion”. Of the witnesses for the prosecution who gave the original written statements, all but one refused to testify at trial. The last remaining witness, who receives payment via the state witness protection scheme, is illiterate and had previously claimed he did not know the content of the written testimony he signed. The case against all four had recently faced severe delays incurred by the Colombian authorities, in what appeared to be an attempt to prolong their imprisonment arbitrarily due to a lack of evidence against them.
On 27 September 2013, the Fensuagro 3 had their appeal rejected and the judge increased their sentences to over 19 years each. The defence lawyers are now taking their cases to the Supreme Court.
Unite is supporting the campaign for their release, on the basis of their partnership agreement with Fensuagro. Click here for a copy of the Unite - Fensuagro campaign postcard - In addition Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey has written repeatedly to the Colombian ambassador calling for their release. Click here for his most recent letter.
JfC Wales, British MPs and members of the Welsh Assembly have also joined the campaign. Click here for copies of some of the letters sent.
Omar Alfonso Combita
Omar Combita was arrested on 2nd October 2011 and is currently detained in La Modelo Prison, Bogotá accused of “rebellion”. He is an active member of FECODE, the Colombian teachers’ trade union and the director of the Santana Ramos Education Centre
The case against Mr. Combita is based on an intercepted phone call with a supposed guerrilla and on a police intelligence report the content of which has changed twice, making it highly dubious. He is one of nine trade unionists, human rights defenders and social leaders to be detained in this case, all of them active in protests against government reforms to education. It appears they have been targeted in order to silence their opposition.
Among those imprisoned in the this case are human rights defender Luis Alfredo Fernandez, treasurer of CPDH Algeciras, and the popular musician Carlos Lugo. Click here to see a video of Carlos performing before his arrest.
Mr. Combita has been diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and has been denied treatment for the condition throughout his incarceration.
Mr. Combita and five fellow inmates carried out a hunger strike from 23rd June 2012 for more than a week, in protest at being denied their right to due process. The prisoners were previously held in Cunduy Prison, Caqueta where their legal process was due to take place, but were transferred to La Modelo Prison, Bogota, shortly before a 25th June hearing. The Colombian authorities refused to return the prisoners to Caquetá, denying them the right to be present during the proceedings. A further hearing took place on Tuesday 3rd July, and again the defendants were denied access.
The Colombian trade union leader Huber Ballesteros was arrested by Colombian police days before he was due to address the 2013 TUC conference in Bournemouth. Justice for Colombia managed to obtain a video message from Huber smuggled out from inside the prison and played to the TUC congress. This is the full message.
Liliany Obando was imprisoned for more than three and a half years in Buen Pastor Prison, Bogota, accused of “rebellion” and was released after a JfC campaign. Click here to see our interview with Liliany the day of her release. In it she thanks everyone who participated in the campaign and speaks of her determination to continue the struggle for those political prisoners that remain behind bars.
The Colombian regime tries to silence those who speak out about human or workers rights. Some are killed, others imprisoned. Many of the victims are trade unionists. Justice for Colombia filmed inside two Colombian prisons where political prisoners are being held. Both of the prisoners featured- Miguel Beltran and LIliany Obando- have now been released following JfC campaigns.
While many more political prisoners continue to be detained in Colombian prisons, JFC has successfully campaigned to set free the following people
Climaco de la Cruz and Faustino Carabali Rodriguez, members of Fensuagro, the Colombian agricultural workers’ trade union, were imprisoned from 30th July and 7th August 2011 respectively, until December 2012 in Mocoa prison, Putumayo, accused of “rebellion”. They were released after a JFC campaign, however, the legal case against them continues.
Liliany Obando, Liliany Patricia Obando was imprisoned from 8th August 2008 to 1st March 2012 in Buen Pastor Women’s Prison, Bogotá. She was dragged away by the Colombian authorities in front of her two terrified children and her elderly mother. The Colombian regime accused her of 'rebellion' and has held her since then in appalling conditions in jail without being convicted of any crime. Click here for more information on her case
Liliany is an academic, a human rights campaigner and trade unionist. Before her arrest she published critical research highlighting the human rights violations against trade unionists in Colombia and worked in several Western countries, mainly Canada and Australia, to raise awareness of this situation. Liliany also worked as an assistant lecturer at the National University of Colombia and as a teacher in disadvantaged communities. Her work is thought to have angered the Colombian regime, and it appears her detention was yet another attempt to silence those who speak out.
In June 2011 Liliany was transferred to Patio 7 in Buen Pastor Prison, where she was only allowed outside for one hour a week. The Colombian government claimed this move was for her safety, however Liliany shared this new patio with paramilitaries, putting her life at risk.
Despite her release the legal case against Ms. Obando continues, and currently faces severe delays incurred by the Colombian authorities - her trial has been on hold since January 2011, waiting for the Colombian Foreign Ministry to facilitate the submission of evidence from abroad.
Ms. Obando’s security situation also remains of utmost concern, as she continues to be branded a terrorist. In particular, an El Tiempo newspaper article on 1st March described her as "Liliany Obando of the FARC", an allegation which puts her life in grave danger.
The false case against Liliany is based on evidence that has been used in cases against numerous members of the Colombian opposition, and has been ruled inadmissible in a separate case. All individuals who have faced a completed trial on the basis of this evidence have been acquitted.
On 8th August 2011, marking three years of her imprisonment, Liliany released a personal account of her detention and the case against her. Click here to read it.
Justice for Colombia marked this anniversary by sending a series of letters to the Colombian Ambassador from all those that have met with her in prison, in addition to a petition to Colombian President Santos calling for her release, signed by over 100 senior UK figures.
Hundreds of activists wrote to Liliany in solidarity throughout her imprisonment.
Telmo Cuero Tegue, member of Fensuagro, the Colombian agricultural workers’ trade union, was imprisoned from 22nd June 2011 to 12th February 2012 in Mocoa prison, Putumayo, accused of “rebellion”. He was absolved and released immediately, following a JfC campaign.
Carmelo Agamez, a human rights defender, was imprisoned from 15th November 2008 until 26th September 2011 – 34 months - without being convicted of any crime. He was held on accusations of "conspiracy to commit a crime". Although he has been released from prison, the legal process against him continues. Click here for more information on his case
Carmelo Agamez Berrío was detained at the Public Prosecutor's Office where he had presented himself with his lawyer. He was jailed La Vega prison and then moved to Corozal Prison, Sucre Province.
Before his arrest Carmelo was the leader of the Sucre branch of human rights group the Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), which has helped to carry out the Citizen Hearings for Truth, which led to the arrest of various politicians and paramilitaries on charges of human rights violations and corruption.
He is accused of being linked to paramilitary structures. The accusation is based on evidence given by one controversial witness, while existing proof of his innocence has been totally ignored. What's more, he has been threatened by the very paramilitary structures that he is accused of being linked to.
Carmelo's detention came just after he publicly accused the current counsellor of San Onofre, Edgar Benito Revollo, of bad management of public money and not finishing social projects.
Although Carmelo has now been released from prison, his security situation remains of upmost concern, as the paramilitary interests he helped to denounce continue to be present in the region. Justice for Colombia coordinated a letter writing campaign shortly after his release asking for his protection.
Click here to see a copy of the letter sent.
Colombian human rights activist Carmelo Agámez was detained in November 2008. Five men raided his house in San Onofre without a warrant. (Original source: http://www.rnw.nl/english/video/political-prisoner-colombia-carmelo-agamez).
Colombian academic Dr Miguel Angel Beltran was detained and imprisoned on 22nd May 2009. He was released on 7th June 2011 after being absolved of the charges of 'rebellion' and ‘criminal conspiracy for terrorist purposes’. In May 2011 Justice for Colombia and the UCU, coordinated an open letter to Colombian President Santos calling for Dr. Beltran’s release, signed by over 4,000 international academics. Click here to see a copy of the letter with signatories. Click here for more information on his case
On his release Dr. Beltran wrote a letter to all those in the UK who supported the campaign for his freedom. Click here to read it. Dr. Beltran has also given an in-depth interview on his case, available to read here.
However, since his release on 5th June 2011, the Colombian mainstream media as well as a senior members of the Colombian administration have continued to publically describe Dr. Beltran as a terrorist, despite him being absolved of all accusations. As a consequence Dr. Beltran has faced continued threats, the theft of information, the interception of his communications, and perhaps most concerning, in September 2011 he received information on plans for his assassination, which stated it would be carried out either by forced disappearance or a faked accident. In addition, the Colombian Inspector General’s Office has opened a disciplinary process against Dr. Beltran based on evidence already disproved in the previous trial, in what appears to be yet another attempt to prevent Dr. Beltran from working and teaching as an academic.
The principal UK education trade unions have written to Colombian president Santos raising Dr. Beltran’s case as well as other ongoing violations against their colleagues in Colombia. Click here to read their letter.
Justice for Colombia and UCU also continue to raise his case wherever possible.
Rosalba Gaviria Toro, a Fensuagro trade union activist and President of the Women's Movement for Peace and Human Rights was detained and imprisoned on 9th March 2009. she was released on 3rd June 2011 after being absolved of the charges of 'rebellion' and 'serious consiparcy to committ a crime'.
Aracely Cañaveral Vélez, a well known leader of the informal workers’ trade union, ASOTRACOMERCIANT, was imprisoned on January 17th 2010. She was released on May 16th 2011.
Samuel Rojas, leading member of the Bajo Ariari Regional Human Rights Committee, was detained from 10th September 2010 to 18th February 2011 on accusations of “rebellion”. He was absolved of all charges and the case against him was shown to be fabricated by the Colombian authorities. Samuel has written in thanks to the Justice for Colombia campaign for his freedom. Click here to read his letter.
Alirio Garcia, a member of the national executive of the Colombian agricultural workers trade union, FENSUAGRO, was imprisoned from 9th August 2009 until 25th March 2010 accused of rebellion. He was absolved of all charges and released from jail after the case against him was shown to be false.
Andres Gil, a leader of the Peasant Farmers Association (ACVC) was detained by the Colombian secret police and members of the Army on 29th September 2007. He was held for two years without being convicted of any crime until his release on 31st August 2009.
Miguel Gonzalez, a founding member of the peasant farmers union ACVC, was imprisoned in January 2008. JFC campaigned for almost a year for his release, which was finally granted in June 2009.
Martin Sandoval, president of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights in the Colombian region of Arauca, was released from prison on the 13th May 2009 after being unjustly detained for over six months. We had been campaigning for his release since November 2008.
Carmen Mayusa, human rights defender and leading activist in the Colombian health workers union, ANTHOC. She had been detained since the 11th May 2006 in Buen Pastor Women's Prison, Bogota. After two years imprisoned without trial she was released in June 2008.
Nieves Mayusa, human rights defender and trade union activist, was detained on 11th May 2006 in Buen Pastor Women's Prison, Bogota. She was released with Carmen in June 2008.
Raquel Castro, Colombian teacher and union activist for the Teachers' Association of Arauca helped to lead the mobilization that prevented Occidental Petroleum from drilling for oil in the territory of the U'wa indigenous people. She was arrested on 5th August 2004 and released more than three years later in August 2007.
Samuel Morales, Colombian teacher and union activist for the Teachers' Association of Arauca was detained on 5 August 2004 and was convicted of 'rebellion' in November 2006, despite serious doubts about the reliability of evidence against him. On 28th April 2007 he was released after completing his sentence. He will continue with his appeal against the conviction.
Hernando Hernandez, indigenous leader and member of the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, in Caldas, and the Colombian Agricultural Union FENSUAGRO. He was detained in June 2005 and held without trial until November of the same year.
Luz Perly Cordoba, founding president of the Rural Association of Arauca (ACA) and manager of the human rights section of the Colombian Agricultural Union FENSAUGRO. She was detained on 18th February 2004, and set free in April 2005. Luz now lives in exile.
Hernando Hernandez Pardo, former national president of the Oil Workers Union USO, was detained in December 2002 and kept under house arrest for 14 months, without charge. He was released on 26th March 2004.