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Column: 'Protecting human rights in Colombia is a dangerous business'

A Christian Aid Ireland delegation visited David Rabelo, a human rights defender in Bogota prison, where he is serving 18 years.

Karol Balfe

YOU DON’T REALLY know what to expect when you’re about to meet someone who has spent four years in prison for aggravated homicide. Particularly when that person is an internationally recognised human rights defender and the case against him is widely discredited – a case deeply connected to the violent targeting of human rights defenders in Colombia.

It’s hard to know what to expect when meeting a man who has always avowed to his innocence and who has not received due process or a fair trial. A man who this Sunday 14 September, marks his four year anniversary in a grey prison in the outskirts of Bogota.

To be greeted warmly and with remarkable good cheer was not remotely anticipated. Yet David Rabelo greeted our Irish delegation with a welcoming smile explaining that ‘my morale is still high as truth is on my side, outside this prison I was a human rights defender and despite the walls and barbed wire I continue to defend human rights inside the prison’.

A dangerous business

In September 2013, David was sentenced to 18 years in prison, after serving three years awaiting his judgement. David is a founding member of a human rights organisation Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (CREDHOS) and was the organisation’s Secretary General at the time of his detention.

Protecting human rights in Colombia is a dangerous business. In 2013, 70 human rights defenders were killed for the work they do, alarmingly these figures are twice as high as figures from 2010 and in the first half of 2014, 30 human rights defenders have already been killed.

Over 50 years of violent internal armed conflict have characterised Colombia, with the state, supported by the military and in collaboration with the paramilitaries fighting guerrillas, without resolution.

Around 12 percent of the population or 5.7 million people have been displaced and the conflict has claimed at least 220,000 lives since 1958, with four of every five deaths civilian. Human rights defenders such as David challenge very strong vested interests and power dynamics- often standing up to paramilitaries who are willing to go as far as it takes to protect their interests.

A failure of justice

David’s lawyers, supported by an independent assessment by British lawyers, have repeatedly highlighted the lack of due process and fair trial in his case.

The prosecutor in the case, William Pacheco, had been investigated and sentenced for his involvement in the forced disappearance of a youth when he was a police lieutenant.

Since Colombian law prevents anyone found guilty of committing such a serious offence from holding the post of prosecutor, Pacheco was legally ineligible to prosecute the case against David Rabelo.

Grave concerns were highlighted about how the case against David relied heavily on the statements given by two released paramilitaries in exchange for benefits.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay expressed concern about the practice of prosecutions directed against human rights defenders that are based on “unreliable witness testimonies from demobilised individuals.”

The truth will be known

David’s lawyers are currently awaiting confirmation that his appeal can be heard in the Supreme Court. David is acutely aware of the challenges he faces:

I got a triple death sentence: physical, political and legal. Those of us who defend human rights are being pursued and put into prison with false evidence.

After four years in prison David remains convinced that the truth is on his side: ‘I continue to fight for my rights, the truth will be known and I will be free.

Thanks to international support my situation is known all over the world’. David was a finalist for the 2013 Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. Within the prison David has organised a human rights committee for prisoners, remarkable in that he shares his jail with ex-paramilitaries who were on the whole opposed to human rights defenders.

What action Ireland can take

In the current Dáil session Irish politicians will be asked to ratify a European Parliament Free Trade Agreement with Colombia and Peru, a necessary step by European regional parliaments before it can become legally enforceable. There has been some action by the Colombian state to improve the situation of human rights and the current peace negotiations with the guerrilla groups offer undoubted hope for the future.

President Santos, on taking up office, expressed commitments to human rights and has passed a law to restore land to victims. However these policy commitments have not yet translated into practice and change for the poor of Colombia.

Civil society organisations in Colombia are clear- not enough has been done and crucially more should be done before other states increase trade links. Large farmers protests in 2013 were linked to recent reforms related to the free-trade agreements already signed by Colombia; these reforms have been at the expense of the interests of peasant farmers, who make up 34 per cent of Colombia’s population and in favour of large-scale economic interests.

At a very minimum the Dáil should fully debate any trade links with Colombia and our human rights obligations. International embassies can also add pressure to the need to protect human rights defenders by visiting David Rabelo in prison and calling for due process to his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Karol Balfe is an adviser on governance, peace building and human rights with Christian Aid Ireland. Christian Aid Ireland supports 11 human rights organisations in Colombia. A Christian Aid Ireland delegation visited David Rabelo in Bogota prison in August 2014.

About the author:

Karol Balfe

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