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The Irish fight for human rights in Colombia

Colombia has over 5,000 political prisoners, many of them jailed on sweeping charges of “rebellion”.

EAMON GILMORE VISITED Colombia this week to highlight the situation facing human rights defenders and in particular the case of David Ravelo, currently serving 18 years for murder after a trial in 2012 marred by serious irregularities.

The trip was organised by Front Line Defenders which protects and supports Human Rights Defenders at risk due to “peaceful and legitimate activities”.

Seeking justice for the murders of human rights defenders

Frontline documented the murder of 55 human rights defenders in Colombia last year.
David Ravelo works with the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS), an organisation which accompanies victims’ families seeking justice and reparations. The case against him rested on the testimony of two witnesses, Mario Jaimes and Fremio Sanchez who placed Ravelo at a meeting in 1991 where right wing paramilitaries planned the murder of a local politician.

The evidence of a third “witness” was discarded when Ravelo’s lawyer discovered that Chavez was just nine years old when the meeting allegedly occurred.

Under Colombia’s “Justice and Peace Law” (2004) “repentant” paramilitaries can obtain reduced sentences if they provide information on unsolved crimes. The word of a convicted killer is sufficient to send anyone to prison. Eamon Gilmore was hopeful that Ravelo’s immediate demand, a transfer to a prison in his home town, will be speedily approved.

At the president’s office for human rights, Gilmore said he was “very well received and the office was very well briefed on the case”. The Attorney General acknowledged the existence of a “mafia of false testimonies” involving authorities desperate to solve cases and prisoners desperate to obtain benefits.

David Ravelo played a key role in securing convictions

Mario Jaimes and Fremio Sanchez were sentenced to 40 years in prison after confessing their role in two massacres in which 32 civilians were killed. Significantly, the testimony of David Ravelo played a key role in securing their convictions.

Jaimes Mejía denounced Ravelo despite previously admitting, in court, that he himself had ordered Ravelo’s assassination. The most common tactic used to silence government critics is an escalating series of threats, from letters and phone calls to kidnap and murder. Nine members of Ravelo’s organisation, CODHES, have been killed.

Between 2008 and 2010 Ravelo faced an escalating series of threats and was forced to leave his home. Within two months of his return he was arrested and charged with murder. He has been in prison ever since.

“They couldn’t carry through their plan to kill me”, explained Ravelo, “so they chose to silence me instead.”

Allegations of ‘rebellion’

Colombia has over 5,000 political prisoners, many of them jailed on sweeping charges of “rebellion”.

David Ravelo was previously jailed for “rebellion” between 1993 and 1995 but was eventually absolved of all charges and released. The authorities apologised and damages were paid.

When the latest allegations were made, Ravelo presented himself voluntarily to the state prosecutor who quickly dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence. However, Colombia’s then-Attorney General, Mario Iguaran Arana, transferred the case to Bogota, where he appointed William Pacheco Granados as prosecutor. Pacheco Granados, a former police lieutenant, was previously charged with the disappearance of Guillermo Hurtado Parra and had spent a year in prison.

Under Colombian law, anyone convicted of a crime is deemed ineligible to serve as a prosecutor inside the justice system.

“When I first saw this case I thought it didn’t have a hope in hell of going to court”, explained Ravelo’s lawyer, Reynaldo Villalba. “When it went to court I said, it will be thrown out immediately.” Even after Ravelo was found guilty, Villalba was certain the case would be overturned on appeal. That too failed. “There was always the Supreme Court” he said, “surely that would be the end if it.”

It wasn’t and it isn’t.

A glimmer of hope

On appeal the court defended its decision, claiming “an extensive body of evidence” against Ravelo, refusing to hear testimony from 30 defense witnesses keen to defend Ravelo’s good name.

While Ravelo’s avenues of appeal have been exhausted there is a glimmer of hope. Two more people were accused of attending the same meeting as Ravelo, one of them a former Colombian MP, Aristides Andrade. On 9 February this year the Circuit Court endorsed the accusation presented by the Prosecutor of the National False Witnesses Unit, on Andrade’s behalf. After undertaking an “exhaustive examination” of testimonial evidence in the same case they concluded that a “crude set-up” had been hatched .

The Attorney General has introduced charges for procedural fraud and false testimony against Mario Jaimes.

‘Human rights are not adornment’

While Ravelo’s good name will ultimately be vindicated, he is unlikely to secure an early release. The false witnesses can appeal and delay a decision for several years. By then Ravelo will have served his time, winning an early release for good behaviour and study.

Eamon Gilmore is planning to lobby the Colombian government to review Ravelos’s case via human rights provisions tied to the recently approved EU-Colombia Free Trade Accord – saying, “The human rights clauses are not there for adornment, they are there to be implemented”.

Michael McCaughan is a freelance journalist specialising in Latin American political affairs. His books include ‘True Crimes’ (2002), a biography of the Argentine writer and revolutionary Rodolfo Walsh, and ‘Battle of Venezuela’ (2005), charting the rise of Hugo Chavez. He is currently researching the drug trade in Mexico and Colombia.

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Michael McCaughan
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