Colombia-Repression Unmasked

September 25, 2007

During a month-long journey through Europe last year, the President of Colombia, Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala, gave assurances that his government was not violating human rights. Before several news reporters in London, Turbay asserted that he in fact was the only political prisoner in Colombia, con- demned as he was to serving his country selflessly. To support his claim, the President invited Amnesty International, whose headquarters are located in the British capital, to prove that all the accusations were lies pro- pagated by subversive agents with the intent of discrediting and destabilizing his government. Amnesty International ac- cepted the invitation. The mis- sion sent to Colombia in January spent 15 days meeting with numerous government officials, individuals from various political and mass organizations, and cur- rent and former prisoners and their families. Their conclusions and recommendations were con- veyed to the Colombian govern- ment, as well as made public in an Amnesty International report. The release of the A.I. report in March of this year created a MaylJune 1980 political hurricane since it was printed in full by the major newspapers of the country. The findings of this highly-respected organization clarified the doubts in the minds of many Colombians with regard to the government and the violation of human rights. Inadvertently it also reinforced and legitimized the stated reason for the takeover of the Dominican Em- bassy by guerrillas from an organization called M-19 on February 27, approximately a month before the report was released. As Commander Uno, chief of the M-19 operation, af- firmed during an interview from the Embassy, "We want to show to world opinion that here in Col- ombia there are political prisoners, that people are tortured." With regard to the right of defense and the use of Military Tribunals, the report points out that between 1966 and 1973 almost 5000 court-martials took place; these military tribunals sentenced more than 3800 civilians. During the summary trials practically all international agreements on the rights of prisoners to a defense were systematically violated. Thus, "Amnesty International recom- mends that the Colombian government transfer to ordinary courts all the trials in progress against civilians sentenced by the Military Courts, whether or not their actions are related or allegedly related to armed movements of opposition." The report also recommends the abolition of the "state of na- tional security" which encom- passes laws in violation of numerous international pacts. Among other abuses of established legal procedures, denial of the right of habeas cor- pus or the recourse to appeal is institutionalized, and the govern- ment, after consultation with the ministers, is given the authority to imprison for ten days any in- dividuals suspected of subvert- ing the public peace. The mission also investigated assassinations, disappearances, imprisonments and attacks, con- centrating particularly on peas- ant communities and Indian set- tlements under military jurisdic- tion. Specifically, with regard to peasants, it was determined that in 1973 peasants who belonged to the Regional Council of the Cauca Area (CRIC) were assassinated. Their deaths were denounced, "but the govern- ment has not yet taken any measures for the protection of the peasants' lives." Finally, Amnesty International recommends that the govern- ment institute effective measures to protect refugees, to allow freedom of expression, and to guarantee the political rights of professionals; it also recom- mends the review of the Con- stitutional Reform of 1979 and the new Penal Code. 41update * update * update * update Amnesty's Findings Amnesty's report states that the visit to Colombia, "took place in the midst of a national debate centered on the subject of human rights. During that debate, the government and the civilian and military authorities denied the existence of political prisoners as well as any viola- tions of human rights, alleging that the denunciations of torture were the result of a plan con- ceived by subversive agents in- tent on discrediting the govern- ment. .. . Nevertheless, the in- vestigation undertaken. by the mission clearly' demonstrated that imprisonment on the grounds of political belief does exist in Colombia, that it is not limited to the violent opposition and that many individuals have been arrested solely for the non- violent exercise of their human rights. In many instances, these arrests have been accompanied by torture." In a press release issued on April 12, A.I. confirmed that, "The mission was able to identify 33 centers where torture has been reported, ranging from psychological torture to beatings, burnings and drugs and electric shocks." The recommendations of Amnesty International to the Col- ombian government encompass, for the most part, the demands made by most of the groups af- fected by the human rights situa- 42 tion in Colombia. To begin with, the international organization recommended lifting the state of siege since, "most of the human rights violations such as in- discriminate and massive political arrests, prolonged im- prisonment without trial, torture, summary trials of civilians by military courts, and political assassinations have been aided, directly or indirectly, to a large extent, by the prolonged state of siege in force almost uninter- ruptedly since 9 November 1949." Adding Fuel to the Fire The plebiscite-like nature of the visit conferred an enormous weight to these recommenda- tions. The 44-page report, fur- thermore, was made public at a specifically critical moment. The takeover of the Dominican Republic Embassy by the M-19 had already drawn world atten- tion to violations of human rights in Colombia. Considering the worldwide publicity the Iranian situation had received, the taking of 15 ambassadors as hostages in a single operation could hardly have gone unnoticed. The day after the takeover the newspapers printed articles reporting the existence of political prisoners in Colombia; according to the guerrillas, they numbered more than 300. Notwithstanding the press reports, President Turbay and his ministers chose to ignore the demands for the prisoners' release, instead issuing statements portraying them as common criminals. Journalists who travelled to Colombia to cover the incident were afforded the opportunity to observe Colombian democracy in action. The March legislative elec- tions, which took place while the Embassy was still being held, registered a record voters' absten- tion of 73%. This lack of popular support, demonstrated the already generalized skepticism towards the government, much of which stemmed from the visible corrup- tion rampant among bureaucrats for whom the state budget is viewed as nothing more than the spoils of war. The poor turnout at the polls gave rise to the hope of finding the government less intransigent about negotiating a solution to the hostage situation. But the ex- pected reprisal of the military, particularly against the Left, forced most of the opposition sectors to be cautious in their ac- tions. At the same time, the ma- jority of the traditional parties which control the state ap- paratus lined up behind the no- negotiations stance assumed by the President and his ministers. So did the U.S. government. It was against this tableau that the Amnesty International report was made public. Yet even though the report appears to have undermined what little credibility the government still holds, Turbay remains extremely cynical in his denial of the ac- cusations. He even had the temerity to call on the OAS Human Rights Commission to prove that Amnesty's report was false. The outcome of the negotia- tions following the takeover of the Dominican Embassy has been de- fined by the Colombian govern- ment as a victory. Very few of the M-19 demands were accepted. MaylJune 1980 The ransom money given to the guerrillas was obtained from a private source who negotiated in- dividually on behalf of some of the hostages. Originally the M-19 demanded $50 million; the amount obtained was only $2.5 million. The political prisoners were not freed and none of the documents and manifestos of the M19 were published in the major news- papers of the world as requested by the guerrillas. The President, the armed forces and the official press stressed the fact that in the negotiations the Constitution had not been violated and that Colom- bian democracy had survived the crisis. The M-19 also claimed victory. According to them one of their main goals was to denounce the existence of political prisoners in Colombia. Definitively, the take- over of the Embassy, one month before the report of Amnesty Inter- national was published, turned the attention of the world to the bat- tered condition of human rights in Colombia. But the state of siege continues. The internal security statutes are still applied against civilians in hastily organized military courts. And torture as a weapon against "subversion" thrives in military garrisons. The government has chosen to fight the evidence with a campaign of silence and denials.

Tags: Colombia, Julio Cesar Turbay, human rights, repression, Amnesty International

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