BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia, once a byword for crime, violence and instability, is opening its doors to foreign investment, tourism and an influx of international attention.
Recently re-elected president Juan Manuel Santos’ has a strong record of growing Colombia’s economy by engaging with new trading partners and signing agreements. Last month, following through on campaign promises to continue the upward trajectory and push for a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the president signed a trade agreement with the European Union.
The move was applauded and the country heralded as a strong emerging market with many major international companies setting up offices in what they call the up-and-coming business capital of Latin America. Colombia has already seen an influx of $622.5 million — the largest inflow into an emerging market-economy this year.
A group of leading Colombian businessmen including heads of major banks, architects and several members of the financial sector openly expressed their support of the re-elected president in a letter stating, “Your government is responsible for unprecedented economic results, including a rise in employment, a rise in foreign investment and excellent international relations.”
But behind the veneer of a quickly modernizing country, a hidden world of gross human rights violations continues to exist with at least 4,000 alleged political prisoners – though some estimates are as high as 9,500 — currently incarcerated in prisons across Colombia, with little to no media attention at the local or international levels.
Political prisoners are civilians jailed for their political beliefs and their democratic opposition to the policies of the Colombian government, and include numerous trade unionists, students and community leaders, human rights activists, indigenous people, academics and other activists and campaigners.
Rights advocates say prisoners are kept in appalling conditions in overcrowded jails with no separation between levels of criminals who are often denied medical attention, time outdoors and educational opportunities. Hunger strikes have become commonplace and reports of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment reach officials in large quantities.
As Colombia continues to sign free trade agreements with countries that pride themselves on their commitments to human rights, indicating growing levels of international trust towards the country, advocates say more attention needs to be focused on the nature of these agreements and conditions upon which they are signed.
"The [FARC] peace talks represent the best opportunity in over a decade to put an end to the 50-year-old armed conflict,” a statement from Amnesty International said. “However, the warring parties continue to be responsible for appalling serious human rights violations and abuses.”
This is a sentiment echoed by many international NGOs who emphasize that the systematic nature of these violations and high levels of impunity are worrying.
Recently released political prisoner Liliany Patricia Obando Villota said that, “firstly, the existence of over 7,500 political prisoners must be recognized, something no government has done: neither that of Alvaro Uribe (president between 2002-2010) nor that of Juan Manuel Santos. Peace without human rights is a contradiction in terms.”
Liliany, a sociologist and active human rights defender, is a survivor of the genocide against leftist political party Patriotic Union in the 1980s and 90s. In August 2008 she was sentenced to 70 months in prison and heavily fined for “rebellion.”
The evidence used in these charges came from the computer of Raúl Reyes, a well-known FARC leader who was killed in a US-assisted raid, and was later declared invalid and illegitimate by the Supreme Court of Justice. But Liliany was only released in 2012 after three long years in the women’s prison of Buen Pastor in Bogota. And though she has been released from prison, her fine still stands and she must serve another year under house arrest.
The Colombian campaign, “I Name You Freedom,” had been tirelessly petitioning for her liberation and contesting the charges upon which she was arrested.
In terms of the irregularities of her case, Liliany explained, “there are various perversions in these processes: judges and attorneys that take part, are or were active members of state intelligence organizations or are reservists; the time investigations take multiplies; they declare a person a danger to society and put them in preventative detention for years and, another perversion, the possibility of being sentenced for terrorism, the condemnations for which are longer. This affects social organizations, generates fear and mistrust.”
Trumped-up charges of “terrorism” and “rebellion” are used to stigmatize these civilians peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, according to Justice for Colombia and Peace Brigades International. In this respect the Colombian government does not acknowledge the existence of this category of prisoners who in the eye of the state are terrorists.
With the drawing down of a conflict that has lasted over 50 years, deep mistrust of left-wing ideas firmly cements itself across Colombia, and activists — or “thought criminals” — are often falsely linked to FARC, a hugely damaging and poisonous allegation — the impact of which incurs further societal stigmatization.
The Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners (FCSPP) has said the detention of political prisoners in Colombia is systematic because it regularly uses dubious evidence and exhibits other irregularities in legal cases to justify arrests.
Peace Brigades International (PBI) has been campaigning since the detention of charismatic social leader David Ravelo Crespo on September 14, 2010 on false charges of aggravated homicide.
Similar to Liliany’s case, PBI’s main concerns regard the source of the statements used to convict him which came from a demobilized paramilitary agent and a former guerrilla, both of whom testified under the Justice and Peace Law 975 of 2005, a widely criticized law that offers reduced sentences for perpetrators in return for information.
UK based NGO, Justice for Colombia is currently campaigning for the release of six political prisoners, the most recent of which, Francisco Javier Toloza, was incarcerated on January 4, 2013 on charges of inciting “rebellion.” Having been an active figure in the student movement pushing for social justice in Colombia, his detention fits in with the Colombian state’s deep mistrust of activism and anything that is seen as challenging traditional authority.