A jailed teacher and a prison library

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.

But just a month earlier, the military had seized a USB memory key belonging to the FARC that was said to contain a database of its members — Diaz was allegedly among them. The Judicial Police investigated, and though their report made no mention of Diaz, it triggered his arrest.

Since then, little has become clear.

There are more than 2,000 pages in the attorney general’s file on the mass rebellion investigation. Three refer to Diaz — an alleged CV from the database of FARC members lists his residences, family members, academic career and training in explosives and artillery.

“We have serious doubts about the authenticity of these resumes,” said Molano, Diaz’s lawyer. He claims the attorney general has made no effort to corroborate the information on the CV, which is the only piece of evidence against Diaz.

Requests to interview the prosecutor in charge of Diaz’s case and the head of the anti-terrorism unit were declined, citing vacation and the open status of the case, respectively.

Molano describes the case as a mockery of justice. He says he wasn’t allowed to learn what evidence existed against Diaz before an initial hearing. The only witness in the case never even mentioned Diaz. Molano likens the unfounded nature of Diaz’s case to a witch hunt: “Throw out a hand and let’s see what we catch in the air.” “Many times, concrete evidence never appears,” said Jimenez, who has seen such cases plagued with phony witnesses, violations of due process and imprisonment for years without a trial.

In June, Colombia’s office of the inspector general appealed to the attorney general for the release of Diaz and 14 others implicated, citing insufficient evidence and calling into question the investigation. But until a decision on the appeal, a trial or any future sentencing, Diaz is anxious not to cage his intellect.

His greatest challenge was being denied access to the prison’s library for his first three months of incarceration. Through conversations with fellow inmates in Patio 2, a prison section of 500-plus men, Diaz said he “noticed that they too wanted to read, but they couldn’t because they didn’t have access to books.”

So began Diaz’s mission to spread the gospel of education. Just outside the cell he shares with four others, Diaz shows off the patio’s own library: a bookcase stuffed with more than 600 books he has acquired through donations by visitors, inmates and the prison system. “There are books ranging from Christianity to economics, philosophy and literature,” he said excitedly. His prototype is so successful, he’s about to replicate it in Patio 3, with Patio 4 shortly in step.

Diaz’s work doesn’t stop there. He teaches literature classes and runs "Cine-Club," a weekly screening and discussion of donated films he has programmed thematically. “This,” he said pointing to the DVD of Harvey Milk, “is part of the sexual education curriculum.”

His eagerness is infectious, and when he speaks, his beady eyes dance behind his round spectacles, made ever more earnest by their dangling string. “I feel like I am working 26 hours a day. I’m always thinking about this,” he said, referring to his projects.