Interview with a Colombian Political Prisoner

July 17, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

On August 8, 2008, Colombia’s National Police arrested Liliany Obando and charged her with the crime of rebellion and providing funding to a terrorist group. Ten months later, Obando had yet to have her day in court and remained a prisoner in Bogotá’s Buen Pastor Prison. Her work for the international relations commission of FENSUAGRO (The National Federation of Agricultural Farming Unions) included speaking and fundraising trips to Canada, Europe and Australia during which she openly and repeatedly criticized the Colombian government’s human rights record. Obando was the first person arrested as part of the so-called FARC-politica scandal that resulted from alleged evidence found on the laptop computer of FARC Commander Raúl Reyes, who was killed by the Colombian military in March 2008. I recently interviewed Obando in her prison cell.

Why are you being held here in Buen Pastor Prison?

The charges against me are politically-motivated. My work involved denouncing the government’s human rights abuses. The government is concerned with its international image and some of us have spoken out internationally against the government. In this country, the judicial process is politicized and there is a lack of independence. As a result, there is a new crime that exists: the crime of opinion. In Colombia, there are more than 7,200 political prisoners, most of who are prisoners of conscience.

What happened when you were arrested on August 8, 2008?

Friends called me that day to tell me that an order had been issued for my arrest. The order for my arrest had been announced in the media earlier in the day. I heard the doorbell ring and thought it was a friend I was expecting. I ran to the door and when I opened it there was a uniformed man and woman standing there and behind them a lot of armed men. They said they were from the DIJIN [the intelligence unit of the Colombian National Police] and began to search the apartment. The captain, Ronald Hayden Coy Ortiz, was the same captain who seized the laptop computers of Raúl Reyes and manipulated the information they contained. He said that I was Raúl Reyes’ lover. They searched the apartment room by room and in my office searched through my books one by one and pointed out that I had many leftist books including books by Marx.

They found a pamphlet about Polo presidential candidate Carlos Gaviria in one of my books and for them this was evidence of links to the FARC. They also found photos of Gloria Ramírez [Colombian senator of the Polo Democrático Alternativo party] and Carlos Lozano [editor of Colombian communist newspaper Voz], which they also considered suspicious. In Camilo’s room [Obando’s 15-year-old son], they pointed at a poster of Che Guevara and said to him, “Is this the example your mother is setting for her son?” They thought the poster and the books in Camilo’s room were subversive materials. All these things in their minds linked me to the FARC. The search took about four hours and they filmed everything. The film appeared on the news while they were still searching my apartment. The captain said sarcastically, “You are going to be famous nationally and internationally.” My five-year-old daughter was afraid of the presence of so many armed people so I held her in my arms until they took me away. In the ten months since my arrest, I have only been interrogated twice by the Attorney General’s office. I eventually learned that I was being charged with two charges: the crime of rebellion and administering the finances of a terrorist group. I refused to accept the charges, which are based on supposed emails on Raúl Reyes’ laptop.

What is life like here in the prison?

I am being held in a patio [cell block] that is high security and is separated from the other patios, so we cannot mingle with the other prisoners. In Patio 8 are prisoners that have worked for the State, para-politics prisoners for example. Many of them are white collar prisoners. All the women in this patio [Patio 6] are political prisoners accused of rebellion. There are 84 prisoners in this patio. Not all the women are guerrillas; some are unionists, others are campesinos who have organized their communities, others are students. The commonality between all of us is that we have all been charged with the “crime of rebellion.” According to Colombian law, rebellion is a crime, but to us it is a right. The expression used by INPEC [National Institute for Prisons and Jails] states, “Your dignity and my dignity are inviolable.” But their claim that they respect human rights is the first lie of the system. There are not sufficient beds, so three people sleep in cells [measuring eight feet by five feet] with only two beds so one has to sleep on the floor. There is no possibility of “rehabilitation.”

Sometimes INPEC acts as a contractor and brings in work from companies outside and it is a violation of labor rights because we don’t get paid. Also, about 90 percent of the women here are mothers and in many cases they are the heads of their families. There are six children under three that live here with their mothers. Even though I presented evidence that I was a single mother of two children, they refused to allow me home arrest and sent me to prison. Five more times over the past ten months I applied for home arrest and each time was denied. There is a difference between us political prisoners and those who were engaged in the para-politics process. Those women received house arrest on their first request. This hypocrisy is also evident in the case Yidis Medina, who was a friend of [Colombia’s president] Uribe.

What are some of the political and social problems in Colombia that you have denounced in your work?

In particular, the government of Alvaro Uribe has many facets of fascism. It hates the opposition and the poor. It is a government that is fundamentally oligarchic, that serves the upper class and multinationals. It is a government that has given up our sovereignty to the United States and has given away our resources. It is a government that fails to provide social investment; that fails to engage in a humanitarian prisoner exchange. It is a government that refuses to engage in a process for peace. It is a government of war. It is a government that lies. It tries to portray to the international community that Colombia is a country with democracy that respects human rights and that people are provided for, but this is not the reality. It is a government that wages war against social movements that have fought decade after decade against injustices. It wants to silence us. It kills us and then defames the memory of the dead. It imprisons those of us who want a just Colombia, an inclusive Colombia. The ability to build democracy here, in reality, does not exist.

What are your thoughts regarding the government’s claims that you raised funds abroad for the FARC?

The money I raised abroad was for FENSUAGRO’s human rights project as well as for cultural and education projects. They don’t have any proof that any of this money went to the FARC.

What do you think the outcome of your case will be?

I believe that, if the judicial process were to work correctly, I would be absolved of all charges. But the judicial process here is a political process so we need other governments to pressure this government and to stand in solidarity with Colombians to ensure the process is democratic.

For more information about Liliany Obando’s case and the international campaign to free her, visit Peace and Justice for Colombia.

Garry Leach writes for Colombia Journal. His new book, Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, is published by Beacon Books.

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This post was written by Garry Leech

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