Since the 1980s human and labour rights in Colombia have been in crisis. Thousands of trade unionists and members of the political opposition have been murdered. Journalists, student leaders, human rights defenders, indigenous activists and progressive lawyers have also been killed and/or disappeared.
Under the current government led by Alvaro Uribe the Colombian conflict has intensified. His supporters argue the current regime has brought greater security but this has been at a high cost. Forced displacement has increased, extra-judicial executions, known as "false positives" have gone up and more trade unionists are being murdered each year.
During this time the number of political prisoners in Colombian jails has also soared and human rights groups in Colombia say this effort is to restrict democratic debate and discredit political opponents. Political prisoners are often held for long periods awaiting trial or given extra long sentences after unfair trials based on fabricated evidence or the use of false witnesses.
There are legal provisions in Colombia allowing for legal, economic, health and educational benefits or even amnesties for certain crimes be given to individuals under the "Paz y Justicia Program" if they cooperate with authorities. These individuals often become unreliable witnesses used by prosecutors, the armed forces or DAS (Department of Administrative Security) who frequently interfere with their testimonies. Evidence has been found in a number of cases that witnesses had also been coached.
It is estimated that currently there are over 7,200 political prisoners of who 87 of are held at the Buen Pastor Women's Prison in Bogota.
Recently I saw for myself the reality of the situation for some of the political prisoners in Colombia. Their crime is political opposition to the Colombian government and for this they face long waits in overcrowded and dangerous prisons, in a country where witnesses and even lawyers are subject to threats or death. Political prisoners in Colombia miss out on privileges granted to white-collar, Mafioso or paramilitary prisoners.
On the Friday I had to register, including being photographed and finger printed at the El Buen Pastor Prison for Women, to visit Liliany Obando the next day. Standing in a long line outside the prison I began to get an idea of what conditions might be for the women inside.
People were trying to bring foam mattresses and other essentials. I wondered what their mothers, wives, lovers and daughters have been sleeping on. The answer for political prisoners, as I found out the following day, is possibly the floor in a 2.5m by 2m cell shared between three women. There is only one bunk bed meaning one inmate sleeps on the floor.
There are 87 prisoners held under the strictest security in an area called "Patio Six". They are political prisoners; some are peasant women, driven from their land which has been turned over to large-scale industrial agriculture, in particular plantations of African palm to produce bio-fuels. (There are from the 3.5 million people out of a total population of 45 million displaced in Colombia). The crime of these women was to participate in the struggle for the rights to their stolen land, for the right of access to education and health and the right for literacy for their children.
Others are trade union activists, human rights defenders and academics, women who in their social and political analysis of their homeland find they do not agree with the ideology and methods of the current regime and exercise their rights to raise that debate and advocate for a new Colombia with peace and justice for all Colombians.
Liliany Obando is one of these women. Liliany is a sociologist, human rights campaigner, a film maker and a trade union activist and consultant working for FENSUAGRO, the National Rural Workers Federation. In recent years she has spent time working on academic research. Her work has taken her to Canada, the US and Australia in an effort to raise awareness of the situation faced by the Colombian trade union movement. This work angered the Colombian regime, which is trying to present the international community with a false picture of what is occurring in Colombia and to cover up the abuses.
Liliany has been held at El Buen Pastor since being detained on August 8, 2008. Twenty soldiers stormed the home she shared with her two children, now five and fourteen. Since her mother's arrest this five year old girl has lost her ability to cry. Repeatedly Liliany's constitutional right to home detention for heads of family has been denied. Her elderly mother must now take care of the two children who went through a terrifying situation seeing their mother taken in such a violent manner, done in complete contempt of the trauma to two innocent children.
Visiting the prison is not easy. The queue of visitors starts to form around 2 am. When I arrived at 7 am I was the 200th person in line. The gates open at 8 am and entry is stopped at 12 noon. The risk of being there late is not making it through the gate by 12 noon and missing out on a visit which means waiting another week. Once inside there are multiple checkpoints to go through which takes a couple of hours and visits end at 3:00 pm.
The difficulty of the process to visit is a further humiliation to the prisoners. One case I heard of was of a three year old girl who arrived angry to see her mother after she was searched and had her pants torn. She said that she wouldn't come back because she was afraid of the guard. She didn't want to come back. Further pressure is put on prisoners by moving them to prisons far from their homes, limiting access of their relatives who do not have the necessary funds to travel. The psychological stress this causes the women often leads them to agree to false charges against them.
After passing examination by dogs and interrogations by guards I finally arrived at Patio Six or as the women refer to it the "Bermuda triangle".
I am amazed at the stories I hear regarding sentences of up to 38 years for young women. I saw an 18 year old girl who got sentenced to three years for distributing leaflets against government policy at a university; stories of children being born there and then having to be separated once they are two years old.
The conditions are hard. Each political prisoner gets a ration of soap, shampoo and even toilet paper for a month, there are no areas for exercise and the lighting and ventilation are poor. In comparison, paramilitary prisoners or prisoners of crimes have more humane conditions which more closely resemble prisons in Australia.
I personally felt powerless to see how a government can try to silence the opposition by incarcerating them. The weakness of the Uribe regime is exposed by the inhumane practice of repressing dissent to remain in power.
After almost 12 months in detention, July 1 has been set as the date for the preliminary hearings against Liliany Obando on the charges of rebellion and terrorism.
In Colombia the level of political persecution and violation of human rights is so excessive that international pressure is necessary to raise awareness and maintain pressure to try and hold the abuses back.
In Australia, the trade union movement, community and social groups have joined the world wide campaign to free Liliany Obando and other political prisoners. For example Peace and Justice for Colombia (PJFC) have led the campaign by condemning her detention and incarceration. It has also written letters asking the Uribe government to respect Liliany's constitutional rights to home detention. Several trade union leaders and politicians have given testimony of Liliany's activities for human and labour rights while she visited Australia in 2007.
We urge all peace loving people to join the campaign and put pressure on the Uribe government to put an end to the repression to political opponents.
There is a need for a humanitarian exchange of political prisoners as a first step for a political solution to the deep social and armed conflict in Colombia. These are the key demands that Colombians such as Liliany Obando advocate for. For more information on the campaign visit http://www.freeliliany.net.
On June 2, 2009 an appeal seeking an extraordinary remedy (casacion) to quash a malicious terrorism conviction was lodged with the Colombian Supreme Court by student activist Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango. According to Human Rights First in New York the case could be a turning point in the criminalisation of human rights defenders in Colombia.
Human Rights First senior associate Andrew Hudson was quoted as saying the appeal would provide a historic opportunity to "overturn years of arbitrary detention and unjust persecution against Gonzalez. The Supreme Court should send a strong message that it will not tolerate abuse of the judicial system to intimidate and silence human rights defenders."
This is the first case seeking such a remedy from the Supreme Court and a strong decision in favour of Gonzalez could help many other Colombian activists wrongly convicted on trumped up charges.
Gonzalez was sentenced to seven more years in prison after a trial that relied on evidence from two unreliable witnesses, one of whom admitted to providing statements under duress from prosecutors.
The Gonzalez appeal is based on a violation on his rights to be informed that a preliminary investigation against him was under way and, secondly, that witness evidence was obtained from ex-combatants receiving re-integration benefits from the state.