Trade unionist and political prisoner Liliany Obando was released on Thursday 1 March 2012 from the prison where she had been held for almost 4 years on charges of “rebellion”.
Liliany was arrested in 2008 while serving as the Human Rights Coordinator for FENSUAGRO, Colombia‘s largest organization of peasant farmers and farm workers unions. She was arrested while finishing a report about the more than 1,500 Fensuagro members who had been killed by the Colombian military and paramilitary troops over its first 30 years of existence. However, all is not settled regarding Liliany’s case.
The court process has not been suspended and she still could be sent back to jail. When asked how she was feeling about the news of her release, Liliany 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.” This victory was only possible through the united efforts of workers internationally who fought tirelessly for Liliany ‘s release. The struggle must continue for all political prisoners everywhere.
Liliany Obando is a documentary filmmaker, the single mother of two children, ages 16 and six, and at the time of her arrest she was a sociology graduate student at the National University. A week before that, she published a report documenting the killing from 1976 on of 1,500 members of the Fensuagro agricultural workers’ union. Obando served as Fensuagro’s human rights director. She had recently toured Australia, Canada and Europe seeking support for Fensuagro’s educational and advocacy work. Along the way, she gained international recognition both as a spokesperson for the rights of women and rural families and as a critic of repression in Colombia.
Fensuagro, with 80,000 members, is the largest peasant and farm worker union in Colombia. Half its members are landless peasants, 30 percent small landowners, 20 percent sharecroppers and 43 percent women. For decades, conflict over land has been center stage in Colombia. Industrial scale agriculture, mining, oil extraction and hydroelectric projects are well ensconced. Multinational mining corporations, for example, hold concessions applying to 40 percent of Colombian land. Those in charge are on guard against the landless, small farmers and agricultural workers who fight for their rights, many of them African-descended or indigenous. The 1928 massacre by the Colombian army of 3,000 banana workers near Santa Marta set the tone. Liliany Obando, unsurprisingly, was targeted.
Obando describes herself as a communist and survivor of the Patriotic Union massacre. She told an interviewer: “My work has to do with bringing human rights tools and legal material to peasant communities …That’s what disturbs governments, all of them: the fact that there are people out there defending the human rights of the most vulnerable populations.” In prison she advocated for fellow political prisoners, often protesting prisoner mistreatment.
The Colombian regime came across a tool for rounding up or intimidating enemies. On March 1, 2008, its military, relying on U.S. intelligence, decimated a FARC encampment in Ecuador. In the process, troops seized computers belonging to FARC leader Raul Reyes, killed in the attack. Within days, the government took information allegedly derived from Reyes’ email communications to intensify repression that ensnared Liliany Obando. A year later, police functionary Ronald Coy, who handled the seized computer files, testified in court that the alleged material appeared in word documents, not emails, and was thus susceptible to manipulation.
In mid-May, 2011, the Colombian Supreme Judicial Court invalidated prosecution of ex-parliamentarian Wilson Borja, ruling that the government failed to demonstrate a legally valid chain of custody for the disputed computers files. Later, that decision led to the release of political prisoner Miguel Angel Beltran and withdrawal of an extradition request aimed at Chilean communist Manuel Oblate, both charged with supporting the FARC. Liliany Obando and other witch-hunt victims remain in custody.
Judicial proceedings in her case are glacially slow. Ever since prosecutors closed their investigation in April 2009, Obando’s trial has revolved around infrequent public hearings. Yet the legally authorized time period for such hearings elapsed in April 2011, and under Colombian law, Obando should have been released. Nevertheless the court, seconded by an appeals judge, ruled that prolongation of the public hearing phase of her trial was “just and reasonable.” A habeas corpus plea filed on Obando’s behalf was denied in early August. The decision is being appealed.
Reportedly, hearings were delayed by the failure of court authorities to enable witnesses, particularly in Canada, to testify or submit evidence on Obando’s behalf. Her lawyers count on such material to show that Fensuagro, not the FARC, was recipient of funds raised in Canada, also to clarify interviews she gave in Canada and emails she exchanged with her hosts. Failure of a prosecution witness to show up prompted the calling off of at least one hearing.
Meanwhile, repression continues in Colombia, unabated during the first year of President Juan Manuel Santos‘ presidency. In Putumayo, police recently arrested four Fensuagro members accused of “rebellion, narcotrafficking and terrorism.” In Sucre, two Fensuagro unionists recently received death threats. Nationwide, one person has been killed every three days during Santos’ first year, according to Justice for Colombia.org.
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