Justice… delayed

A couple of weeks ago I was all set to attend my second criminal hearing in Colombia, though this time accompanying the defense lawyer, not a lawyer on the prosecution side (representing the victims is a role permitted in the Colombian justice system), as I did in 2010 in the San Jose de Apartado massacre case. Now, two is more attempts later, I’m seeing first hand some of the frustrations that many human rights lawyers have expressed about the Colombian judicial system.

I say that I attempted to attend two more hearings because neither of them actually happened.

The first hearing was to take place in early June in the southern department of Putumayo, a region inhabited by several indigenous ethnicities and referred to as the “gateway to the Amazon.” The hearing was to be for a case against two Nasa indigenous men accused of “rebellion,” a charge that alleges collaboration with the guerrillas.

However, for the second time in a row, the hearing was postponed. The lawyer wasn’t notified of the change, though, until we were already en route.

The hearing was again postponed because, despite having four months’ notice of the hearing date, the D.A. couldn’t manage to locate its witnesses and the judge decided to accept the D.A.’s excuse. The entire case is based upon the testimony of three witnesses, all demobilized guerrillas, who have accused the two Nasa men of collaborating with them. Despite the Nasa’s stance of neutrality in the conflict, the accused were arrested in September 2009 based upon the testimony. After six months they were released, but the case against them continues.

The lawyer was, understandably, frustrated about the time lost, but was even more frustrated for the Nasa men and several of their fellow community members who had traveled over a day and a half, by foot and rickety back-road vehicles, to testify at the hearing.

Several of those who had arrived are members of the guardia indígena (indigenous guard). These guards nonviolently protect the Nasa community, and the staffs they carry, which represent the spirit of the body that carries them, are their spiritual weapons. The Nasa, like the Peace Community, don’t tolerate armed actors on their land. There are some pretty incredible stories of armed actors – guerrillas, paramilitaries or military – entering Nasa territory, and the guardia surrounding the intruders until they agree to leave. Orlando, one of the community leaders who arrived to testify in the hearing, told me about an incident last year when the army arrived and tried to arrest a young Nasa man, but without a warrant. The guardia surrounded the young man, refusing the let the army arrest him without a warrant, and eventually the army left.

The second hearing I attempted to attend was in the eastern city of Bucaramanga, in the case against the well-known human rights defender David Ravelo, who PBI has accompanied for years, since long before the arrest. This time, the D.A. simply did not show up, without having sent any message that he wouldn’t be there or presented any excuse for his absence. The delay was once again a frustrating disuse of time for the defense lawyer, but especially for the nearly two hundred people who had traveled from David’s hometown of Barrancabermeja, over two hours away, to support David.

David is accused of not of rebellion, but of a murder committed in 1991. According to the charges, David participated in a meeting in which the murder was planned and guerrillas were ordered to kill the victim. In fact, David was already accused of rebellion related to this case, in 1993, but was absolved, and he later won a case against the government for wrongful imprisonment. But now, says his lawyer, the famous human rights lawyer Alirio Uribe, the case has been reworked so as to get David in jail through a different charge.

Alirio explained that the case is a clear example of an attempt to neutralize human rights work by prosecuting human rights defenders. In the 1980s and 90s Barracabermeja had a strong and active social movement, and David was a very visible human rights leader. Then, in 1998, paramilitaries launched a violent takeover of the city in a bloody campaign that included murder and forced disappearance. Many community leaders who weren’t murdered or disappeared were accused of collaboration with the guerrillas. In fact, one of the former paramilitary leaders who has accused David in this murder case had at one point ordered David murdered. Another of the witnesses was nine years old when the murder occurred, though he claims he was a guerrilla leader at the time.

Besides, Alirio said, the story that David participated in the murder planning is absurd, because the other participants in the alleged meeting were his political enemies. It’s as if, explained Alirio, someone from the Democratic Pole party (Colombia’s most left-wing party) planned a murder with people from the “U” party (former president Uribe’s party). Or, to translate it for a U.S. audience, it’s as if someone from the Green Party got together with the Tea Party to plan a political murder. (Read more about the case here.)

Despite the delays in the cases against the three men, the lawyers and the men are relatively hopeful of positive outcomes. They know the men are innocent, of course, but they also have the assurance of multiple inconsistencies in the testimonies of the witnesses, as well as the dozens and dozens of cases, as documented by, among others, Human Rights First, of demobilized combatants being paid and/or coerced into giving false testimony. Nonetheless, the lawyers, after years of dealing with delays and irregularities in the judicial system have serious concerns about due process and, particularly in David Ravelo’s case, the strong interest in certain powerful circles of keeping social movement leaders imprisoned.

Moira Birss

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