|January Reports Indicate Dismal Times Ahead for Colombia’s 7,500 Political Prisoners|
|Written by James Jordan|
|Tuesday, 08 February 2011 22:39|
The first month of 2011 has not fared well for political prisoners and prison conditions in Colombia. Already at least two fatalities have occurred under questionable circumstances, along with four arrests of student and labor activists. While the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos speaks about improvements regarding human rights in the country, facts on the ground suggest otherwise.
Following is a partial list of incidents:
These incidents in January represent an escalation of an ongoing problem. Since 2000, Colombia has worked in partnership with the US government to redesign its prisons and increase their capacity by 40%, citing prison overcrowding. However, the prisons are still overcrowded, with the population growing from 63,000, according to government statistics, in 2007 to 106,000, according to a report by the El Tiempo newspaper, in 2010. (The family of President Santos owns El Tiempo.)
This new prison construction accompanied a significant increase in arrests. These included a 300% rise in the number of persons arrested for political reasons whose cases were later thrown out of court for lack of, or falsified, evidence. The accused spend an average of three years of incarceration and are frequently targeted for paramilitary assassination upon release. Once arrested, political prisoners are sent to institutions dominated by paramilitary gangs where they are increasingly mixed into the general population and, thus, targeted for violence. Most new arrests in Colombia, however, are of common criminals, themselves victims of a broken economy that has left at least 45% of the population living in poverty and almost half of Colombia’s children unschooled.
If the events of January 2011 tell us anything, it is that the human rights situation has not improved since Santos took office. Political arrests and the abuse of political prisoners are but one example. There are more than 4.5 million Colombians that have been displaced from over 12 million acres of land, and most of that is now in the hands of transnational corporations, wealthy landowners and paramilitaries and narco-traffickers. The Santos administration has at least proposed modest land reform, but it is woefully inadequate and would not return most of the displaced to their homes nor provide them alternative compensation. Rural displacement continues at an unacceptable pace and Colombia has surpassed even Sudan as the country with the largest number of internal refugees. Murders of unionists also continue at a rate that still exceeds the number of murdered unionists in the rest of the world combined. In fact, during the first 100 days of the Santos Administration, at least 22 political, labor and student activists were murdered. Concurrently, the rate of impunity for such murders rose from 95% to over 98%.
The events of this past January were preceded by other instances of political repression during the first months of Santos’ tenure in office. According to Traspasa los Muros (Beyond the Walls–the Committee for the Liberty of the Political Prisoners), a few developments occurring between Santos inauguration in August, 2010 and the end of the year include:
According to Traspasa los Muros, there are over 7,500 political prisoners in Colombia today, divided into three categories:
1) Prisoners of Conscience, who are incarcerated because of their nonviolent activities of political resistance;
2) Victims of Frame-ups, who are jailed because they were in some way impeding political or economic goals desired by the government (including, for instance, farmers arrested on false premises who otherwise refuse to leave land desired by transnational corporations or big landowners);
3) Prisoners of War, the smallest category, being some 500 members of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and a smaller number from the ELN (National Liberation Army) and other armed groups. (Prisoners of War are included as political prisoners because of the need for a political solution to Colombia’s internal conflict versus a military solution accompanied by increased repression.)
A statement by the Areito Imagen artists’ group describes the situation in Colombia: “It is an unsupportable situation: every day they detain, murder or disappear a member of the political opposition, students, unionists, social activists, peasants…The repression exercised by the Colombian state against the Colombian people in order to silence their social recovery is brutal. It is urgent that the people of the world show their solidarity. This reality and its dimensions are excessive on a global scale and must be made known.”
It is the responsibility of the international community to speak out against this repression. All indications are that political arrests are growing and prison conditions are worsening. The International Network for the Colombian Political Prisoners has recently initiated a call for the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate Colombian prison conditions. They are also calling on the Colombian government to:
1) Stop the torture, abuse and neglect of political–and all–prisoners.
2) Segregate political prisoners into separate units for their protection.
3) Stop all politically motivated arrests.
4) Negotiate for a humanitarian exchange of prisoners of war as a first step toward dialogue for peace.
5) Free all Prisoners of Conscience and Political Frame-ups immediately.
To learn more about this effort, visit the INSPP website at: www.inspp.org.
James Jordan is National Co-Coordinator for the Alliance for Global Justice.