On 8 October, ex-president and current senator for the Centro Democrático party, Álvaro Uribe Vélez was questioned by the Supreme Court of Justice about alleged witness manipulation and bribery in relation to declarations against him for possible ties to paramilitary groups.
In the context of this process, Franklin Castañeda, president of the Foundation Committee in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners (CSPP-Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos), was subjected to accusations from Senator Uribe and other members of the Centro Democráctico party, in connection to incidents addressed in a previous case, where the Supreme Court did not find any irregularities.
PBI Colombia has accompanied CSPP since 1998. CSPP is a human rights organization that, on multiple occasions, has seen its members victim to attacks, assassination attempts, and even murders.
As a result of the last round of accusations against CSPP, PBI interviewed Franklin Castañeda, who is also the representative for the human rights platforms at the National Commission on Safety Guarantees (CGNS-Comisión Nacional de Garantías de Seguridad), a body created within the framework of the Peace Agreement between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian Government in 2016.
PBI: Please tell me about FCSPP’s work and history
Franklin Castañeda (F.C.): The Committee is Colombia’s first human rights organization. It was founded in 1973. The original initiative came from Gabriel García Márquez, who also donated the funds to create this institution. It was founded by a group of unions and individuals from the academic and journalistic world (including: Enrique Santos Calderón, Nirma Zárate, and Gustavo Arango), and was created with the idea of providing legal and technical defense to those imprisoned for political reasons. Nevertheless, after 46 years, which we reached this October, many things have changed, not only in the country but also in our work.
Decades ago we stopped working solely on the situation of political prisoners in the country. The first step in this change was to build an area focused on providing assistance to imprisoned individuals whose rights were being violated. The second step was to support victims, mainly victims of state crimes, enforced disappearance, forced displacement, extrajudicial executions, etc. Also, we recently opened a program on guarantees for peace that is focused on monitoring the situation and providing support in response to the plight of leaders. Historically, we have worked to consolidate peace and democracy.
PBI: Can you please explain the last case that has put you in the eye of public opinion?
F.C.: Looking at the events chronologically, in 2011, a commission was created in Congress so that civil society organizations and members of congress could visit the prisons and observe the situation inside the prisons. In the context of these visits, two prisoners talked to us about situations that involved Mr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez. We gave the video materials with the testimonies to the authorities and, from there, a media scandal erupted that led to security problems for Juan Monsalve (one of the prisoners) and his immediate family.
Around November 2011, Juan Monsalve’s family asked for help to address their security situation. We studied the case and determined that they were at risk. At that point, we provided emergency support. We moved the immediate family to Bogotá and tried, without success, to bring the situation to the attention of the Prosecutor General’s Office. Unfortunately, the protection program at the Prosecutor General’s Office took approximately five or six months to respond, during which time the witness or a family member could have died. In fact, during that time Mr. Juan Monsalve suffered an assassination attempt in prison, an 80 million peso price was put on his head. We cannot determine, nor is it our role, who made that offer. Our role was to provide protection to that family, which was why we sought out economic resources from two cooperation agencies. We have documentation showing how we looked for the resources to cover expenses such as: the hotel, airline tickets, or the funds to rent the rooms where they lived. By June 2012, we ended our work on the case as it was impossible for us to find a safe place for the family, even more, because it was impossible to get the Colombian state to take on the case.
In 2013, Mr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez denounced Iván Cepeda and, within that complaint was the allegation that Iván Cepeda had paid the witnesses’ relatives. The accusation stated that that payment was made at Iván Cepeda’s office. However, the address presented was that of our organization. And in fact, we had met in our office. We were called as witnesses before the Court and we handed over the support documents showing the economic resources that we had contributed to the Monsalve family.
I also brought up the consequences that this work had for us, for example: we were prohibited from entering the prisons; I had to leave the country for two months; I received death threats; there was even a threat with pictures of me in July 2012. The Colombian state knew about all of this, to the point that the IACHR called the Colombian state and only then did the state strengthen my protection measures. All of this was shared with the Court and, in February 2018, the Court decided to close the investigation against Iván Cepeda and ordered an investigation to be opened against Álvaro Uribe Vélez.
PBI: What did the Court decide about FCSPP at that time?
F.C.: The Court analyzed our work and stated that it is aligned with our mission, that our work was necessary as there was a confirmed risk for Mr. Juan Guillermo Monsalve and his family, that the resources that we provided were after Mr. Juan Guillermo Monsalve had made his declarations and that we had to stop providing those resources and aid in the face of a lack of state attention. Give this situation, from our perspective, it is sufficiently clear that our role is aligned with Colombia regulations and the circumstances were studied by the highest court on criminal issues: the Supreme Court of Justice.
PBI: What is currently happening in relation to these incidents?
F.C.: In October 2019–that is to say, a year and seven months after the Court’s ruling–Álvaro’s defense team, Álvaro Uribe Vélez himself, and those close to him have extracted pieces of the file that I presented on 3 December, 2014 and have made them public, saying that it is the proof that Iván Cepeda, through us, had given witnesses resources.
This, in our opinion, constitutes a crime. Information is being presented before the country in a biased and even malicious manner, without providing the necessary context. They know that these are not new documents and they know that the Court has already ruled on this case. However, none of that is presented before the country and they only present receipts to generate a scandal that is accompanied by a series of attempts to smear our name, accusing us of being criminals involved in bribery and witness manipulation, which is false. This has generated a large number of messages attacking us, written by their followers on social media. To date, we have handed over 140 of these messages to the Court as evidence. These messages look to threaten, intimidate, and slander us.
We are confronted by a well orchestrated campaign that, in our opinion, looks to set the stage for various actions: it looks to gain time for Mr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s defense in relation to the Court ruling; surely it looks to promote our criminal prosecution; and it looks to create a scapegoat to reduce the political impact produced in Colombia by the fact that he has been called to testify and is part of a procedural fraud investigation. I feel like this is a legal and media strategy, as media attention could impact the legal arena.
At the very least they have threatened to file a complaint against us. I believe they are going to try to initiate a case against us in the ordinary jurisdiction, which will be used as an element for their defense. We, in that case, would make ourselves completely available to Prosecutor General’s Office, so that they investigates us and listen to us. What happens is that, even if the Supreme Court studies the case, we will be investigated and there could be a court trial which would be susceptible to extrenal pressures, as has happened in other cases. Consequently, I do believe that there is a real risk that sectors of the justice system could act against us. One of Mr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s very clear patterns is attacking those who speak up or the individuals who, in one way or another, have had connections with the case. Its his defense mechanism. And, to date, that pattern has worked for him.
PBI: What would be your response in that case?
F.C.: We have requested that the Court assess if Mr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez and Mrs. Paloma Valencia’s behavior, when they have made public declarations against our organization and myself, should be understood as included in the crimes of slander, libel, and aggravated harassment. We have provided the Court with evidence of the declarations made before the mass media and the threats that have circulated on social media.
PBI: What message would you like to send to the International Community?
F.C.: We are very thankful for those who have made statements supporting us, in solidarity with us in response to the stigmatization campaign. Organizations like Amnesty International, IACHR, Human Rights Watch… Also, close to 300 Colombian organizations made a statement supporting us and many people have sent videos and other manifestations of their support. We know that we are not alone in this, but we also know that we are up against the interests of a powerful sector of the country. Therefore, we know that the risks we face are high, for our life, our freedom, and our reputation.
What the community needs to see is that what is hidden within this case is the typical and classic stigmatization of the work of human rights defenders who carry out an action that is inconvenient for a sector or sufficiently powerful person, to the point that they feel that their power is threatened. I believe that this is one of these cases, when a powerful sectors uses the state, uses the judicial power and the mass media, to attack, isolate, and, to a certain extent, negatively impact the human rights organizations or defenders that generate some kind of risk for them.
I think that the international community has seem many examples of similar actions in other parts of the world, and unfortunately, this is what is happening today in Colombia. Colombia has a climate of attacks, polarization, and violence towards those who act in opposition to or contradict certain powerful sectors. This is one of the causes leading to many of the attacks and aggressions faced by human rights defenders today, for example threats or worse attacks, such as murder. We call on the international community to accompany us, and asks any questions necessary to clarify the situation. We are completely open to explaining and demonstrating what our role was in this case. We also want to say that we need guarantees for our lives and to carry out our work.