I had never imagined that a public trial could be held in such a small place. 13 people – including the judge, the prosecutor, the lawyers, the police and the accused, David Ravelo – in a space of less than 12 metres square. I could not believe that the judge was going to call the former paramilitary ‘El Panadero’ to give evidence in this same space. It almost made me shiver to think that I would be so close to this man, here, in the judge’s chambers. The man, Mario Jaimes Mejia, alias ‘El Panadero’, was recently sentenced to 40 years in prison for taking part in the massacre carried out on 16th May 1998 in Barrancabermeja. There, the paramilitaries under orders from ‘El Panadero’ murdered seven people and disappeared 25 others. Today, ‘El Panadero’ and another demobilised paramilitary are the only witnesses in the case against David Ravelo, the renowned human rights defender from Barrancabermeja accused of having taken part in a murder 20 years ago.
“The trial conditions are not very good because there was no courtroom available so we held the trial in the judge’s chambers” his lawyer Alirio Uribe of the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Committee explains.
Without knowing much about trials, I agree with him. Between the sound of the fan and the noises from the street, it is difficult to hear properly, and even less so for the 40 people – family, friends and members of David’s support group – who have to wait outside because of the cramped space. There is no microphone and no recording of the declarations by the parties who are speaking at the pace of the secretary who is typing the record of proceedings with two fingers on the computer. Two angels in a wide baroque style golden frame watch down on us. Under the frame sits David; slim, with a white shirt, he smiles little, maybe because his family was not able to come into the chamber. The last time I saw him free was in his native city running from one meeting with hundreds of trade unionists to another with the Mayor of Barrancabermeja. The people of this oil-town wanted advice from the human rights defender who had brought countless cases of extrajudicial executions, murders, forced displacements and disappearances in the Magdalena Medio Region. He had also brought an action for the massacre of 16th May.
We have now reached the interrogatory phase of the proceedings, explains Alirio Uribe. After several hours, it is hard for David to continue answering the questions. He is visibly tired, fighting a headache, but still wanting to give detailed answers to all the questions. Despite the tiredness, he continues to concentrate on the arguments, with his glasses on and taking notes, he looks like another one of the lawyers.
“They have tried to get me out of the Barrancabermeja scene in different ways”, David states in a steady voice. The threats he received last year just before he was locked up, come to mind. One of his sons received several telephone calls warning that they were going to kill his father, that he should get ready for his funeral, and another one, saying that they had already killed him. But none of the threats he received between 2000 and 2010 were able to silence him.
His absence from the social movement has been felt, explains Wilfran Cadena, Vicepresident of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS), the organisation where David Ravelo works. He explains that David had been CREDHOS’ official spokesperson and the person responsible for initiating claims. “Today almost nobody in Barrancabermeja is speaking out about the human rights violations happening in Magdalena Medio” Wilfran comments.
I am both relieved and disappointed to hear that there will be no time for ‘El Panadero’ to give evidence today. I would have liked to hear him, but perhaps not from so close. Alirio Uribe is optimistic that the prosecution against David will collapse after this trial. And in the meantime, David continues to be detained in Bucaramanga where the former paramilitaries who accuse him are also being held.