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Colombia’s smiley face hides torture and repression

Human Rights

Colombia: behind the bright facade lie some uncomfortable truths. Pedro Szekely under a Creative Commons Licence

Once the byword for violence and instability, Colombia is now opening its doors to tourism and foreign investment. However, behind the welcome, a hidden world of human rights violations prevails.

More than 5,700 political prisoners are held in the country’s jails. These are civilians detained for their political beliefs and opposition to government policies. Many are trade unionists, student and community leaders, human rights activists, indigenous people, academics and campaigners.   

Political prisoners are kept in appalling conditions in overcrowded jails. They are often denied medical attention, time outdoors and educational opportunities. Many are tortured when first arrested and continue to be mistreated, despite Colombia’s ratification of the Convention Against Torture and other legal instruments prohibiting this practice.  

The detention of political prisoners is systematic and often follows a pattern: dubious evidence is used to justify arrest and further irregularities are presented in the legal cases.

Peace Brigades International (PBI) has been campaigning for charismatic social leader David Ravelo Crespo, who was detained in September 2010 on charges of aggravated homicide.  

The organization’s main concern regards the source of the statements used to convict him – one came from a demobilized paramilitary agent and another from a former guerrilla. Both had testified under the Justice and Peace Law 975 of 2005, a widely criticized law that offers reduced sentences to perpetrators in return for information.

Human rights organizations paint a troubling picture of how fundamental freedoms are restricted in Colombia’s supposedly liberal democracy. Several are working to free political prisoners and publicize their plight in the international media.  

One such campaign, ‘Yo te nombro libertad’ (I name you freedom) began as a solidarity initiative between various organizations, specifically calling for the release of trade unionist Huber Ballesteros.

A prominent member of the CUT union and of the social and political movement the Marcha Patriotica, Ballesteros was also a spokesperson for the Bureau of Agricultural Partnership (MIA). The main witness in the case against him was a paid state employee who had testified in 35 other cases against social activists.

British-based organization Justice for Colombia is currently campaigning for the release of 6 political prisoners, including student activist Francisco Javier Toloza, incarcerated in January 2013 on a charge of  ‘inciting rebellion’.  

Meanwhile, a Colombian NGO, the Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, has produced information on conditions in the country’s jails, where there is no separation between prisoners of conscience and violent criminals.

Countries that pride themselves on their commitment to human rights, and are planning to trade with Colombia, should check it out and see how their new partner treats citizens who dare to criticize.

Hannah Matthews lives in Bogotá.

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