The bus ride of about 400 zigzaging kilometres between Barrancabermeja and Bogota seems like luxury when you think about David Ravelo. This human rights defender raised on the banks of the Magdalena River, has been detained nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit. In spite of the irregularities in his case that demonstrate his innocence, he has lived behind bars for so long he could not experience many of the important events for the country which took place in that time: the emergence of the social movement Marcha Patriotica, the eight medals won at the Olympic Games in 2012 in London, the joy of same sex couples who can now get married, the closure of the border between Venezuela and Colombia in 2015, the death of the great ‘Gabo’, or the signature of the Peace Agreement between President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño ‘Timochenko’ with their famous hand-shake in Havana.
A lot has happened in eighty four months, and if he could choose the one thing missed most it is without a doubt not having been able to cuddle, not even for a night, his four year old daughter, his youngest, so she could sleep in his arms. As he tells us he holds his hands to his chest, to express his indignation and regret.
This time I feel more positive on the trip, my fingers are crossed in superstition: David’s freedom could be quite close. His lawyer, Reinaldo Villalba, of the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), who has been defending his case for the last few years, enthusiastically tells us that there is light at the end of the tunnel thanks, in part, to the possibility that measures under the Special Jurisdiction For Peace (JEP) will apply.
We spoke to him in Bogota about the procedures for David, who is currently detained in Barrancabermeja prison, and came to realise that the long awaited release may soon become a reality.
PBI: Reinaldo, the case has stalled for nearly two years, what progress has there been?
Reinaldo Villalba: David Ravelo was sentenced to just over 18 years in prison. The Supreme Court of Justice did not examine the merits of the case, and the decision is theoretically therefore final. But we took it to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and at the start of the year they asked us to provide more information on some of the points, so for the first time we’ve gained some traction with the Inter-American System.
As result of the agreement between the FARC and the Government in Havana the JEP, which is a transitional justice mechanism, will apply to state agents, guerrillas or third parties who supported the war, be they paramilitaries or businessmen. But it also creates the possibility for social leaders, detained because of their work or activism, to be released.
David Ravelo’s case would in theory come under the JEP, but we have a difficulty and it’s that in this procedure, several of the criminal charges relate to acts of protest, but homicide, which is what David was found guilty of, is not one of them. Nevertheless, the wording of the agreements included an obligation on the State to create the Law of Amnesty and Pardon, Law 1820, which covers members of the FARC, as well as social leaders and State agents. In effect, article 35 would apply to people who were found guilty of allegations of FARC militancy, whether or not they actually were members.
In David’s case, it is clear that he is a human rights defender and a political and social activist but he was set up to take the fall in a baseless prosecution that rode on the word of some paramilitaries who said that he had taken part in the decision to kill David Núñez Cala, because he was the FARC’s political representative in Barrancabermeja. The courts in Colombia found him guilty based on false testimony, but the law applies to people who have been processed or found guilty of alleged guerrilla militancy, which in itself demonstrates a link to the internal armed conflict.
Feel it to tell it: 2,252 (December 2016)
Tales from the field: My tears are invisible (December 2015)
Interview with David Ravelo: “I only fear one thing: to be unworthy of my suffering” (March 2014)
Tales from the field: A surreal hearing (September 2011)
PBI: Article 35 of Law 1820 is for people who haven’t been a member of the FARC or an illegal armed group, and who can now be granted conditional release?
RV: Not exclusively. Article 35 talks about conditional release, but it also has wider measures. The part that applies to David is the section on people who have been detained five years or more, regardless of the crimes they were found guilty of, who can obtain conditional release if they comply with the measures required by the law, and David has been deprived of his freedom longer than five years. Being condemned under allegations of FARC militancy also opens a door for us to request his conditional release.
The Secretary General of the JEP, Nestor Raul Correa, has already sent his representative for David to make a formal commitment to appear before the JEP once it is set up. Obviously, our interest is for the JEP’s Revision Chamber to examine the decisions made by the justice system and recognise the innocence that prosecutors and judges in Colombia have refused to admit so far.
This request is also in the hands of the Sentence Execution judge in Bucaramanga who has been informed of his case, it should already be at her office, all that it needs is her signature. David’s release will happen soon only if there is a decision based on the law. It doesn’t depend on whether a judge wants to release him or not, but on whether some requisites have been complied with. But anything can happen in this country where judicial operators take arbitrary decisions; our daily lives are filled with examples of them. That’s more or less the picture at the moment.
PBI: How is the prosecution of ‘El Panadero’, one of the witnesses against David, going?
RV: Mario Jaimes, alias ‘El Panadero’ is the Prosecutor’s main witness in the case against David, and is being tried for false testimony because he fabricated the case against him. If this person is found guilty and the verdict is confirmed, the Supreme Court of Colombia could review the decision.
PBI: Could ‘El Panadero’ accede to the JEP?
RV: Not in my opinion, because he had already sought to be tried under to the Justice and Peace Law  which applied to paramilitaries that had supposedly demobilised, even if a court had excluded him from the process, so in my opinion he has lost the opportunity to be covered by the JEP.
However, if he does want to apply to the JEP tribunal, it is probable that it will agree to look at his case, then see if he is complying with the terms or not, and whether or not he is telling the whole truth, something he has not been willing to do in all these years. He has continued to deny his guilt but eventually was forced to recognise some of the charges, like the rape of journalist Jineth Bedova.
PBI: How are you going to bring the case to the JEP Tribunal if it hasn’t been created yet?
RV: If the JEP is not created soon and ‘El Panadero’ is found guilty of false testimony, we would immediately take his case to the Supreme Court for the verdict to be reviewed on the basis of ‘El Panadero’s’ guilt. We would call for it to be reviewed on the basis that the court found that the main witness had lied. Of course David should be indemnified holistically for the harm to him, his family and the social organisations he belonged to.
PBI: What are the political implications?
RV: In David’s case it is clear that we will present the case of his innocence to the JEP. We’re not seeking a pardon because pardons are for members of the guerrilla, and David is absolutely clear that this is not the path for him.
We’ve got two situations with the JEP: one is immediate like his conditional release under Law 1820; the second is that once the Special Peace Tribunal is in place we will request the Review Chamber to examine the verdict against David. Our aim is for the court to find that David Ravelo was prosecuted and found guilty on the basis of fabricated charges, which amounted to political persecution, and that he is innocent. That is what we want the JEP to decide because it is the historical truth.
PBI: What are the implications and conditions for David Ravelo’s conditional release?
RV: The commitment is to present it to the JEP once it is created and not to leave the country without prior judicial permission to do so. He would have to strictly comply with those requirements.
In my view, he should have a normal social and family life, and be able to carry out his work as a human rights defender. Remember that David Ravelo is a human rights defender, which is why he was put in prison, and the whole time he has been inside he has continued to be one: he defended the fundamental rights of other prison inmates and represented them in front of the authorities. If he gets conditional release, what will be different to when he was in prison, or before it? Defending human rights should not be conditioned in any way.
PBI: What is happening with the case at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights?
RV: It is slow, cases don’t move forward as quickly as one would like, first because they have many cases in process; secondly, because the resources allocated to it are precarious. David Ravelo’s case was submitted several years ago and the Commission has only recently asked us for information on specific points; information which has now been provided.
We will continue to pursue the case, even if David gets favourable decisions in the ordinary justice system or the JEP. The case should continue in the Inter-American System because it isn’t just about him being declared innocent, the Inter-American System should recognise that it was political persecution and an arbitrary criminal process. The rights we want the System to recognise much more than David Ravelo’s innocence, but also the harm caused to him, his family and the society around him.
PBI: The dynamics of the current violence in Barrancabermeja and Magdalena Medio have not changed much in the years since David went into prison, do you think this could present a risk to him?
RV: Without a doubt, the polarisation in this country is an element that increases the risks for David Ravelo. Barranca, unfortunately, has suffered historically because of the poliarisation that increases the danger for social activists. Without a doubt, the enemies of this process and those who still seek to do him harm increase the risks he faces.
PBI: How do you think the harm it caused to David and his family should be repaired?
RV: The persecution by the State and the paramilitaries that David has had to go through should be repaired holistically and completely for him and his family. When I speak of reparations I don’t just mean economic compensation, but holistic: psychological implications, what it meant to be forced apart from his family and the emotional and economic needs of those who depended on him, like his sons and daughters. All of this is harm that can never be repaired but the State has the obligation to do so to the greatest extent possible. There will probably be a new action to obtain this holistic reparation, because the State, more precisely the Public Prosecutor, was recently found guilty of arbitrarily detaining David in the 1990s, in a trumped up prosecution based on secret witnesses. David was finally exonerated of the charges after the witnesses in the case were completely discredited.
PBI: Do you think that if David is granted conditional release, it could have a knock-on effect for other political prisoners in Colombia?
RV: David Ravelo’s release should be a precedent for the judicial authorities to grant freedom for social activists and leaders who have been detained for organising or taking part in public demonstrations, which is not a crime but a right. These situations are used as pretexts for specious prosecutions, sending the leaders to prison and forcing them to answer charges for crimes they did not commit.
There are other cases similar to David’s where the charges have been fabricated; some defenders spend time in prison and are released after the courts find them innocent. Others like David are found guilty, although his is the only one I found with such a severe sentence. This is because it was the result of a conspiracy not just by ‘El Panadero’ but also by the paramilitary and political powers behind him, and the Prosecutor’s Office that had put its weight into pushing it forward, even though his testimony was proven to be a lie; in fact ‘El Panadero’ is currently on trial. The Prosecutor who accused him is banned from holding office because of a disciplinary sanction because he had taken part, when he was a police officer, in the enforced disappearance of a young man in the city of Armenia, a crime he has been charged with in an ongoing criminal process.
It is clear that David Ravelo’s work as a human rights defender has had a very high cost and is one of the most painfully unjust cases I have known.
Silvia Arjona M.
 PBI Colombia: David Ravelo
 Marcha Patriotica is a left-wing social and political movement created on 21 April 2012 to support the peace process.
 The JEP, announced on 23 September 2016, will exercise judicial functions and be part of the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition under the Colombian Peace Agreements.
 Colombian Congress: Law of Amnesty, Pardon and other dispositions. Law 1820, 30 December 2016
 Ccajar. David Ravelo Crespo: en espera de pronta absolución, 24 September 2012
 El Espectador: El caso de David Ravelo, a la CIDH. 27 September 2015
 Wikipedia: Justice and Peace Law and Law 975 of 2005
 El Espectador: Alias ‘El Panadero’ aceptó cargos por secuestro y tortura de Jineth Bedoya. 2 Febrero 2016
 Semana: El “transformer”. 01 June 2013