Colombia Delegation – Day 5

Dated:

Colombians for Peace met us today to talk about the work they are doing to try to end the conflict in country. The organisation was set up by leading members of society and includes politicians, trade unionists, journalists, church figures, former diplomats and others. They have successfully negotiated the release of several hostages and were key to the announcement by the FARC guerrillas on Sunday that the remaining hostages would be released and the practice of kidnappings would cease.

Lilia Solano explained that the catalyst for setting up Colombians for Peace was the death of the FARC leader Raul Reyes in Ecuador in 2008. The Colombian Government and media were triumphalist in their response to his death and promoted a feeling that FARC could be defeated. Those who were already working for peace did not believe that to be the case and decided to come together under the umbrella of Colombians for Peace.

Their first steps were to write to FARC asking them to enter into negotiations and to release the hostages they had held in some cases for over 10 years. At the same time they called upon the Government to act. FARC replied to the letter saying they were willing to talk and would unilaterally release some hostages. The hostages were not released but a channel of communication was opened.

The Government response has been less positive. There still appears to be a view that the war can be won. When in office, former President Uribe referred to the group as Colombians for FARC. Dr Carlos Lozano, a newspaper editor described the process they would follow in securing the last hostages release. Past experience shows that it is a very delicate operation which is all about the ability to trust the process. Colombians for Peace have been pressing the Government to give assurances that they will be fully committed to the process.

The release of the hostages is seen as a starting point only. The announcement that the kidnappings will cease is in some ways more significant. Colombians for Peace are concerned that the Government respond. President Santos has said he has the key to peace but often this week we have heard it said that he is keeping the key in his pocket. The media helps to create an impression that there is not a great pressure for a negotiated settlement in Colombia. The experience of the peace organisation is that ordinary people want peace. Middle ranking army officers privately say they want the war to end and many ordinary soldiers have contacted the group to that effect as well.

There is a chink of light at the moment that suggests that the door to a peace process might be opening. Colombians for Peace are pressing the parties to be open and trusting and to put aside their preconceptions. International support for the process is vital. They said the international media tend to adopt the language and stance of the Colombian Government and media that FARC need to surrender and that there should be no negotiation with terrorists. Experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere suggests a more sophisticated approach can bring about long term benefits. You can support the peace process here http://www.justiceforcolombia.org.

In the afternoon we had a series of meetings organised with Government Departments. I attended the meeting at the Attorney General's office. In the course of about an hour and a half we raised many of the issues that had come up over the week. The concern about the lack of investigation and prosecution - it is estimated that about 98% of assassinations and other human rights crimes go unpunished. When there are prosecutions there is often huge delay which causes distress to the victims and regularly leads to the collapse of the proceedings altogether. On the other hand political prisoners can spend years in prison without conviction. We expressed concern about whether the Land Law for the return of stolen land can and will work and whether there is sufficient effort being made to progress that. We also asked about steps to protect victims and others and gave details of death threats that had been received this week by the organisers of a human rights demonstration on 6th March. Finally we asked that they support the International Tribunal being organised by the Association of Labour Lawyers in May.

On the face of it the response we got was positive. The Director of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law said that the Attorney General's office was guaranteed independence under the Colombian constitution. That their role was to protect and defend human rights, protect witnesses and victims where necessary and to prosecute anyone who was thought to have committed human rights abuses.

One example given was the case of David Ravelo a high profile human rights activist who is awaiting trial that they said they were working with to support. I put to them that this seemed an odd thing to say given that the prosecution of David Ravelo was based upon the testimony of a former paramilitary leader that David had exposed. The paramilitary leader who has accused him of murder has received a reduction in his sentence from 40 years to 8 years under a programme that rewards former paramilitaries that give testimony. The response to this was that there was not just the paramilitary leader's evidence and it was for the Court to decide what the truth was. This seemed to contradict the earlier statement and also ignore the role of prosecutors in making decisions about which cases should be prosecuted and which should not. There is more information on David's case here http://www.justiceforcolombia.org/campaigns/prisoners/.

They said that we had to understand the context in which they were working. It was a difficult situation for them, investigations were hard because abuses were committed in areas which were extremely dangerous. They were ashamed of Colombia's past record and were committed to human rights in the future.

The most generous interpretation that could be given is that the Attorney General's office, or least parts of it, genuinely are committed to a different society. They are hampered by the Government and they really are working in a difficult situation. The current proposals to extend immunity from prosecution to the military for actions carried out in combat are an example of the executive restricting the rule of law and the scope that the judicial system has to act.

A less generous interpretation is that we were being told what they thought we wanted to hear. Much as President Santos is accused of presenting an acceptable face to the international community so we were being given something of a PR exercise. Some support for this view was the fact that two of the people attending the meeting from the Attorney General's office were joking between themselves and sniggering whenever we mentioned trade unions. Something we pointed out. We also referred to the latest Amnesty International report that stated that the human rights abuses were continuing. We were told that they do not agree with the Amnesty report but they are committed to human rights.

At the end of the meeting I said that the international community would judge them by their actions and not their words. That a judicial system defines a society and a nation. We had met many people in the time we had been here whose courage and spirit in adversity did Colombia great credit. Those people felt strongly and so did we that the judicial system had let them down. We had told everyone we met that on leaving Colombia we, along with much of the international community would be watching the situation very carefully in the future.

There were other meetings in the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defence. The meeting at the Foreign Ministry seemed to have a similar tone to that at the Attorney General's office. There was an apparent commitment to co-operate fully with the hostage release. The meeting at the Ministry of Defence was cancelled at the last minute. As the group was travelling to the Ministry they were telephoned to say that the meeting should have taken place 30 minutes earlier and therefore it would not happen. This is despite the written confirmation of the meeting that existed. There were obviously a wide range of issues that were to be raised with the Ministry of Defence.

Liliany's Release

After the meetings we travelled back to Buen Pastor Women's Prison to await the release of Liliany Obando who was granted bail the day before. We joined a group of about 30 to 40 members of Liliany's family and supporters outside the prison. There was a tense two hour wait in the cold Bogota evening. We were told that despite a court order requiring her release before midnight, sometimes the Attorney General's office can find technical reasons to deal with a new or different charge. Until she walked out the gates, no one was certain what would happen.

Every time the bolts were drawn on the gates there was a sense of anticipation. Eventually Liliany emerged to the cheering crowd, hugging her 8 year old daughter and mother who were waiting. She spoke to a Latin American TV crew and her supporters. She also spoke to the international delegation saying how important international pressure was for the political prisoners. She said that all she was doing was moving her workplace, meaning that now she was not working with the other prisoners in Buen Pastor she would be doing the same thing somewhere else. She said that the other prisoners should not be forgotten and that part of her heart was left behind the bars with the prisoners she was leaving behind. The political prisoners wing of Buen Pastor holds about 80 prisoners.

It is hard to describe the experience of Liliany's release. After seeing so much over the week that was heart-wrenching but also seeing so much that was humbling and inspiring, her release was a once in a lifetime moment, 5,500 miles from home. However, Liliany will receive no state protection and her supporters said that the price of her freedom was a life on bail in the face of grave danger.

Liliany's Release

Tomorrow we board the plane home after more meetings with the Government and British Ambassador.




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