Interview with David Ravelo, January 2011. La Picota prison, Bogota:
David Ravelo greets us from the other side of the bars and a few minutes later we meet in one of the visiting rooms. David Ravelo, economist, human rights defender and member of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS) has spent eleven weeks in detention in la Picota prison in Bogota and has earned the respect and trust of the 130 inmates who share the Special Detention Facility and who recently named him to represent them on the Human Rights Committee. Despite being locked up, he still has his wide smile, and a tremendously contagious positive energy flowing from his conviction that he is innocent of the charges of conspiracy to commit crime and aggravated murder, charges based on the testimony of former paramilitary commander Mario Jaime Mejia, alias “El Panadero” who is serving his sentence under Law 975 after confessing to the massacre of 16th May 1998.
“I am guilty because I speak out”, David Ravelo reflects as he reminds us of the countless claims he has brought for the so called “false positives” or extrajudicial killings, murders, forced displacements and disappearances in the Magdalena Medio region. He is convinced that by putting him in prison they “try and silence a community leader who didn’t let himself be intimidated, and whom the establishment couldn’t co-opt”. Before his imprisonment he had to withstand a decade of receiving death threats. Exile was never an option for David Ravelo, because in his own words he has dedicated his life to defending human rights and fighting inequality. Even from within prison he works ceaselessly and continues to follow all the community initiatives in the oil-town of Barrancabermeja. Despite his difficult situation, David Ravelo makes it clear that what is important to him is retaining dignity, a sense of optimism and hope. Why did they put him in prison?
David Ravelo: The charges against me are conspiracy to commit crime, which is a way of disguising a charge of sedition, and aggravated murder.
PBI: What is hidden behind the imprisonment of a well-known human rights defender and leader such as yourself?
DR: They are doing to it to cower the social and human rights movements, to break the social fabric and weaken the entire process which supports victims. By locking up the victims and putting them on par with the perpetrators, they want to damage the credibility of the community movements. In my particular case, they want to remove me from the public sphere because they think I am a thorn in their side.
PBI: How is the case evolving?
DR: There is no doubt that this is a deeply political case, where due process and the right to a defence are relegated. They use false witnesses, who have been bought, and who’ve been making abysmal contradictions, but apparently this does not matter and what they want to do is cause harm. I have expressed that I will continue to be optimistic because sooner or later, the truth will set me free. We have presented a motion to appeal the detention, but we are under no illusion, this process is more political than legal. If the law is applied I am sure that I will be released.
PBI: How is your relationship with other detainees?
DR: The relationship is built on respect for our differences and there is complete harmony with the other inmates, we have understood it to mean that dignity is what makes us equal.
PBI: How do you organise your time?
DR: I dedicate time to organising the case to keep the defence moving forward and give support on evidence issues. I have solidarity visits from social organisations, public figures and international organisations like Peace Brigades International. I accompany the other inmates in the cell block in order to defend their human rights, and to fulfil my duties as a representative of the Human Rights Committee.
PBI: Are you afraid for your safety?
DR: I have always been threatened and despite the good relationships we have on our cell block I feel a degree of uncertainty. I hope that my fundamental right to life is guaranteed.
PBI: What do think is the biggest impact of being incarcerated?
DR: Being kept apart from my family, my wife, my children, especially my youngest son Juan David.
PBI: What strategies do you use to overcome this situation?
DR: Stay busy, active, reading or writing. Continue to do research, keep fighting for truth and justice and keep writing about it all despite being locked up, because you can never lock up someone’s smile or their opinion. That is why I keep voicing my opinion, to go beyond the bars on the prison cell.
PBI: What support have you received?
DR: The support of national and international organisations has been fundamental. This solidarity keeps my spirits up. The way people mobilised in Barrancabermeja, Bucaramanga and Bogota has been a huge incentive to keep my head up.
PBI: What should the international community do to support your cause?
DR: Bring to the world’s attention to how human rights defenders in Colombia are being persecuted and criminalised. Demand full guarantees for the right to a defence, and for my case to be transferred to the Human Rights Unit. There is a very profound intention to keep me in prison and away from human rights work in the Magdalena Medio region. It would be important to ask the United Nations to be especially vigilant of the prosecution against me.
PBI: What message do you want to send to the international community?
DR: In this country, those of us who dare to speak out about human rights violations, we are subjected to the most fierce persecution, which could mean putting us in prison or murdering us. They want to impose unanimity, and to do so there is an entire system of organised terror, so that nobody speaks out, so that they let it happen, let it pass and they can achieve their objective.