Colombia: Political prisoner freed after international campaign

March 3, 2012
Liliany Obando.

The International Network in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners (INSPP) received the wonderful news on February 29 that Colombian labour activist, human rights defender and political prisoner Liliany Obando was to be released on bond the next day.

Obando had been in jail for three years and seven months on charges of "rebellion".

Obando was arrested on August 8, 2008 while serving as the human rights coordinator for Agricultural Workers Union Federation of Colombia (Fengasuagro), Colombia's largest organisation of peasant farmers and farm workers unions and associations.

She was apprehended while finishing a report about the more than 1500 Fensuagro members who killed by Colombian military and paramilitary forces over its 30 years of existence.

Obando was detained on the basis of evidence allegedly obtained from computers that "miraculously" survived an attack against a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla camp across Colombia's border in Ecuador.

The FARC camp was involved in negotiations to secure the release of FARC-held captives. The attack, ordered by then-Colombian defense minister and now president Juan Manuel Santos, was widely considered to be an attack on hopes for a peace process in Colombia.

Evidence said to be contained in the computers was not credible. The international police agency Interpol said the sources of files in the computer could not be authenticated.

The chain of custody of the evidence was broken and unaccounted for several times in the days after it was seized. At least two Colombian law enforcement personnel testified the files had been manipulated.

Charges against Obando were made on the basis of copies of emails said to have been found on the computer. However, Police Captain Ronald Hayden Coy Ortiz, who oversaw the initial investigation, testified in court that the computers contained no email records.

Nevertheless, Obando's case was stretched out over more than three years without resolution. Even when the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the evidence against her was inadmissible, she remained in jail.

But even if the Supreme Court, Interpol and the government's own witnesses could be ignored, an international campaign for her freedom could not.

After years of friend-of-the-court statements signed by notable supporters, petitions, letters, emails, demonstrations, phone calls and delegations on her behalf, Obando is finally looking forward to being united with her two children and other friends and family.

It is no mistake that her release was announced at the same time as a major conference was being held in support of the more than 8000 Colombian political prisoners: the Colombia Behind Bars Forum, with guests from around the world, including representatives of the INSPP.

This is yet another example of the power and influence of international pressure.

Nevertheless, all is not settled regarding Obando's case. The court process has not been suspended and she still could be sent back to jail.

Also, political prisoners released into the general public are often at risk of violence in the first days, weeks and months after their release.

I spoke to Obando at the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) Women's Penitentiary just moments after receiving the news. I was so happy, overjoyed I could barely contain myself.

I asked her how she was feeling, and she said: "I have mixed emotions. I want to leave, but I don't want to leave the other political prisoners behind. We have to keep working until all the political prisoners are free."

That is the Liliany Obando that so many of us have come to know, love and look up to. Never tiring of the struggle for peace, justice, and human and labour rights, the day she entered the prison, she started collecting the testimonies of other political prisoners and organising on their behalf.

From within the jail cells, Obando proposed establishing the INSPP. She always insisted that we not only advocate for her freedom, but for the freedom of all her comrades deprived of liberty.

She insisted that we not just advocate for the freedom of the political prisoners, but for peace in Colombia.

From the beginning, the INSPP has insisted that a first step toward a real and just peace in Colombia will begin with a humanitarian exchange of prisoners of war, and with the immediate freedom of all of Colombia's prisoners of conscience and prisoners jailed due to judicial set-ups.

There are many indications a legitimate peace process could be ready to begin in Colombia. The recent announcements that the FARC would release all their military prisoners and the release of Obando are significant.

But international pressure must not let up. Now is the time to demand the freedom of all Colombia's 8000 political prisoners and an inclusive peace process based on dialogue and negotiations, without unrealistic pre-conditions.

In the US, we must demand an end to our country's sponsorship of war and repression in Colombia, including our funding and restructuring of Colombian prisons where political prisoners are concentrated under harsh conditions.

But as we vow to continue this struggle, let us also take a moment to celebrate this great victory. As Obando once told me: "By day we struggle, by night we dance!”

[Abridged from Alliance for Global Justice. James Jordan is national co-cordinator of the AFGJ, a co-founder of the International Network in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners. Visit the site for more information on the campaign for Colombia's political prisoners.]

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