When Colombian union leader Liliany Obando was a young child in Pasto, she once came upon a policeman rousting a peasant women selling fruit, off the sidewalk. Liliany ran into the street to collect and return the women's fruit, which the policeman simply threw back out. Then, to the horror of her mother and sister, Liliany gathered up the fruit and pelted the policeman with them! The little girl was roughly "arrested" and taken to the station where she was scolded, threatened and eventually released, in the hope of teaching her a lesson.
The "lesson" Liliany appeared to have learned that day was that the road to justice was through struggle. Today she is into her 18th month of incarceration in Bogota's Buen Pastor prison, in the high security Patio 6 political prisoner section.
She spent a full year here before she was even charged with "rebellion", a catch all charge used against any union activist, and "raising funds for terrorism" which she supposedly did while touring Canada in 2006 raising funds for her farm workers union FENSUAGRO (where I first met her).
In contrast, in February I watched on Colombian TV as a female paramilitary leader and eleven government soldiers caught murdering peasants, were all released simply because they had not been charged within 90 days! The hypocrisy and double standards are so blatant it's truly astounding.
Liliany is one of 7200 political prisoners held in horrendous prisons all across Colombia, many without charges. When I met her in Buen Pastor prison in September 2009, I immediately expressed my sadness at her situation. She rebuked me. "Kevin, this is just another front in the struggle."
And so it was. Liliany has organized the prisoners to communally resist the oppression of the prison. Funds donated to her turn into food, cosmetics, craft supplies and clothing for other prisoners. Fiestas are organized for International Women's Day and other political celebrations. During my visits, other prisoners would regularly interrupt us to ask Liliany questions and take her away to impromptu meetings.
It turns out she is treated as a sort of mediator among the prisoners. Like so many countries, Colombian prisoners have legal rights, but only on paper. Liliany and her fellow prisoners have been forcing the authorities to actually respect these prisoners' "paper" rights.
Word got out about this fightback to the Communist Party leader, Senator Gloria Ines. She delivered a bound copy of the Colombian criminal code to Liliany, who now uses it to help all the prisoners of Patio 6 to know their rights.
Through her earlier worldwide union fundraising tours she made personal contacts which are now bringing union leaders, journalists, parliamentarians and student activists from Australia, Canada, US and Europe to visit her. She tours them all through the prison yard, introducing these foreigners to the plights of unjustly jailed women from all across Colombia.
So Liliany is still "throwing fruit" at the oppressors, and they are not pleased. The prison authorities first retaliatory attack was to arbitrarily search her cell, seizing belongings and violently assaulting her. During my January visit they threw me out of the prison because I didn't have a newly required document, unavailable to foreigners. This obvious attempt to bar visits by foreigners failed following international protests and internal prisoner pressure.
The latest, most serious threat, is that the authorities have deemed Liliany a "problem prisoner" and want to transfer her to the notorious La Tramacua prison (see People's Voice, Oct. 16-31, 2009) in the extremely hot, dry North, beyond the reach of her family and visiting foreigners, regardless of the fact that she has yet to be convicted of anything.
It is sad and astounding to think that Harper Government wants to reward Colombia with a free trade deal, for its supposed human rights improvements. Truly Orwellian.
Liliany is waging a very effective struggle on her "front", but she and her fellow prisoners need our support. Please visit http://www.freeliliany.net to see how you can help with appeals, petitions and funds. And check out http://www.victoriacasc.org to see video interviews and news reports on her trial.
You can send Liliany and the other prisoners packages and letters and even call her on the prison payphone (011-57-1-5931082). She speaks English, but first you have to say to whoever answers "Hola! Liliany Obando por favor"; then you will have four short minutes to speak to a true fighter.
Venceremos! Thanks for your support.
Kevin Neish is a member of the Central America Support Committee in Victoria, B.C. He has been to Colombia three times in the last six months, touring the country to hear unionists, farmers and political activists tell their stories of state oppression. He has visited Liliany Obando in prison eight times, and stayed with her family as a protective witness for several weeks.
(The following article is from the April 1-15, 2010 issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to: People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)