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A jailed teacher and a prison library

Colombia's penitentiaries are increasingly filled with political prisoners accused of belonging to insurgent groups.

BOGOTA — “Greetings companeras and companeros!” said William Diaz Ramirez, a high school teacher and human rights defender, trying to project his voice through the crackle. Diaz was launching his campaign for the House of Representatives via telephone— from a medium-security prison south of Bogota.

Diaz finds himself incarcerated for "rebelion" — a charge referring to insurgent activity against the state — and accused of being a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It’s a claim he and his supporters say is a set-up rather than anything resembling the truth.

“I’m a prisoner of conscience. My crime was to think and criticize,” said Diaz, sitting in the library of La Picota prison. “I don’t have any other explanation as to why I am imprisoned.”

He is one of thousands of political prisoners who are civilians charged with "rebelion" but who, according to their defenders, do not in fact belong to insurgent groups. They tend to be social leaders, human rights defenders and peasants who live in guerilla-controlled regions, said Agustin Jimenez, president of the Solidarity Committee for Political Prisoners, which tracks these cases.

While Colombia’s murder rate has plummeted under President Alvaro Uribe, arbitrary detentions spiked 86 percent during his first term, from 2002 to 2006, according to the Solidarity Committee. Some observers believe the surge is an alternative method of persecution to politically motivated assassinations. “It has the same effect of killing social movements, but without the political costs at the national and international levels,” said Jorge Molano, Diaz’s lawyer. “The method of repression has changed.”

The nature of Diaz’s case is not rare — long detentions and weak evidence are plaguing more and more of those who take unpopular political positions here. “To be accused in Colombia,” Diaz said, “is to be in judicial limbo.”

Despite the circumstances, Diaz is making the best of the grim confines of prison. Faced with an indefinite detention, he has set up small libraries in the prison, organized film screenings and declared himself a candidate for elected office.

Diaz was arrested on Nov. 14, 2008, at the high school where he teaches social sciences and philosophy in Bogota’s south. He was one of 55 students and educators arrested for "rebelion" as the result of an investigation of FARC infiltration within academic institutions. But Diaz’s case appears to be fraught with a blatant lack of evidence and a litany of judicial violations.

Diaz, 39, is a self-described socialist. He helped found a student human rights network as well as a permanent series of workshops at the National Pedagogical University that examines leftist thinkers. He admits his political positions differ greatly from those of Uribe’s right-wing government. But, he said, he has never aligned himself with an armed movement, nor have any of his activities verged on criminal.

It appears the attorney general’s office originally agreed with that assessment. The initial investigation into Diaz and others was ordered closed because it had been impossible to deduce they had links with the FARC, said a March 2008 report by an anti-terrorism prosecutor.