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IN March 2012 two of my colleagues at Aslef, general secretary Mick Whelan and district officer Nigel Gibson, stood at the gates of El Buen Pastor prison in Bogota to applaud the release of Liliany Obando, a human rights activist who had suffered years of wrongful imprisonment.
Earlier this month Obando was back in that same prison. She faced no new charges or accusations. She was guilty of only one thing — social activism. To the Colombian government, this is reason enough to jail her — and thousands like her.
After a six-day hunger strike she has now been sent home and is once again under house arrest.
Obando is a human rights defender, trade unionist, academic and political activist. She was imprisoned between August 2008 and March 2012, accused of links to Farc guerillas.
She was detained for 43 months without a conviction then, after a series of irregularities, she was sentenced to 70 months under house arrest, on charges of rebellion. At the beginning of August 2014 she was taken back to prison even though she had fully complied with the terms of her house arrest.
Obando does not in any way present a danger to society but she continues to be branded a terrorist.
Her only crime is to have remained committed to human rights and the defence of social justice.
She continues to be vocal in her political activism and, in spite of the risk of persecution, to speak out about human rights abuses, particularly against trade unionists.
There are hundreds of political prisoners in Colombia’s prisons, including 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 and in the few cases in which people are convicted they are often charged with “rebellion.”
Whelan, who is also vice-chair of Britain’s Justice for Colombia campaign (JFC), said: “I was sickened to hear that Liliany was back in prison — particularly when leaders of the Colombian paramilitary, responsible for hundreds of deaths and massacres, still enjoy impunity for their crimes.
It is shameful that the judiciary and the media continue to collude to set up political activists.”
Other cases which continue to cause concern include those of Huber Ballesteros and Miguel Angel Beltran.
Ballesteros is an elected member of national executive of Colombia’s largest trade union federation, the CUT, and the national organiser for the social and political movement, the Patriotic March.
He was arrested in August 2013 in the midst of mass industrial action which he was instrumental in leading.
Ballesteros is accused of “rebellion” and the main witness in the case against him is paid by the state and has testified in 35 other cases against social activists.
Dr Miguel Angel Beltran is an academic who was imprisoned between May 2009 and June 2011 before being absolved of the charges of “rebellion” and “criminal conspiracy for terrorist purposes.”
Since his release, even though he was acquitted of the charges against him, the media and government representatives have continued to publicly describe Beltran as a terrorist, resulting in continued death threats against him and a ban from working and teaching as an academic for the next 13 years.
As a regular volunteer for JFC, last month I joined MPs, trade unionists and lawyers from Britain and Ireland on a delegation to hear about the situation directly from human rights activists, community leaders, trade unionists and political representatives.
We heard that the killing of trade unionists continues to be of fundamental concern and intimidation is such that trade union affiliation has reduced to under 3 per cent of the working population.
We also heard testimonies of the continuing impact of the armed conflict on the civilian population, of widespread displacement, murders by state forces, forced disappearances and regions under paramilitary control.
The resolve and determination of the Colombians in their struggle for justice is inspiring. Many are critical of President Juan Manuel Santos but gave him their support in the elections last month in the hope that he will press ahead with the peace negotiations which began between the Colombian government and the Farc guerillas in 2012.
The agenda of the talks covers the following six points: land and rural development, political participation and guarantees for the political opposition, an end to the violence, resolving the problem of drugs, justice for victims and human rights, and implementation.
Although there is still a long way to go before the negotiations are likely to reach an agreement, the peace talks do offer the possibility for real change.
This is why, as we left the country, the delegation called for a bilateral ceasefire to build trust between the negotiating parties.
This would involve the Colombian government guaranteeing the protection of trade unionists, civil society activists and the political opposition.
While Liliany Obando and her comrades face jail on trumped-up charges, we know talk of democracy and freedom are a sham.
Join Justice for Colombia (JFC) to help them with their work of highlighting the repression, supporting human rights groups and raising awareness within the international community. www.justiceforcolombia.org
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