Colombia’s smiley face hides torture and repression


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.

Apathy wins Colombia’s first round of elections


What will the future be like for these children if voters choose to stay at home or vote for the extreme right party? Pedro Szekely under a Creative Commons Licence

Apathetic is a word rarely used to describe Colombians as their history has been characterized by passion, activism and attempted revolution. However, in recent years an anti-political wave has swept the country, leaving in its wake disillusioned citizens who equate politics to the corruption and scandals that so often dominate their newspapers and television screens.

The 40 per cent turn-out at the polls on Sunday revealed the sorry state of South America’s oldest democracy. This presidential election is crucial for the future of the country and its chances of ending or continuing its protracted civil war.

The electorate was presented with five choices ranging from the Leftist Polo party represented by Clara Lopez to Oscar Ivan Zuluaga’s right-wing Centro Democrático. The latter was the main serious contender to the current president, Juan Manuel Santos from the Partido de La U. And it was Zuluaga who won the first round on Sunday, coming slightly ahead of Santos, and leading to a run-off in the second round on 15 June

Santos promises to continue the peace talks between the government and the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) with a view to a negotiated end to the civil war. Zuluaga promises a return to ‘mano firma’ (hard hand) approach to the conflict, rejecting the notion of negotiation.

These positions reflect the split in Colombian public opinion.

Following fraud-filled Congress elections in March, numerous irregularities including vote-buying were expected. But in the capital Bogotá, NGOs and UN institutions acting as monitors saw little evidence of electoral fraud. Moreover some parts of the city saw an 85 per cent turn-out, a result far higher than elsewhere in the country.

Generally, though, vote-buying remains a popular method of garnering support. Parties provide buses for people living in remote places, ferrying them in to polling stations on the condition they vote for them.

The campaigns leading up to election day were riddled with scandals: there was a video of Zuluaga dealing with a well-known hacker and allegations that President Santos had accepted drug-trafficking money to help pay for campaign costs.

Last minute televised debates, supposed to enable the public to make an informed decision on election day, further muddied the waters leaving many even more confused about the policies of each candidate.

Will the turn out be higher for the second round? Colombians are uninspired by a political system dominated by a few families, traditional power blocks and corporate power. Little wonder many prefer sell their vote for a couple of pesos or a few roof tiles.

With each new leader or public figure comes further scandal and corruption. Since last year Bogotá’s precariously perched mayor, Gustavo Petro, has been locked in legal battles with the Inspector General who ousted him for alleged bad management of the country’s waste disposal system. Following months of uncertainty, the ex-guerrilla has now been reinstated as mayor but the conflict bred mistrust.
Colombia is a country torn by division but on the edge of potential change. The economy is opening up and foreign tourism is increasing. Much is at stake. A victory for the extreme right would suggest an unwillingness to move forward. Eyes will be focused on the second round on 15 June when Colombia’s voters decide (or don’t) to have a say in their country’s future.

Hannah Matthews lives in Bogotá.

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