Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners
The Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) is recognised nationally and internationally for being the longest-running human rights organization in Colombia. With coverage in six regions of the country, the organization works to guarantee the human rights of persons deprived of their liberty. It promotes truth, justice and reparation through legal representation before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). CSPP also defends the right to peaceful social protest, as well as the work of environmental leaders and human rights defenders who have been attacked and detained.
“PBI’s presence means support for victims in their legal proceedings and on the ground. It is a way to convey to the victims the reassuring message: ‘you are not alone, the eyes of the international community are on your security and your rights.’ This has forced the State to improve, via decisions included in jurisprudence, the guarantees for the rights of victims.”
Fernando Rodríguez Pica, Head of the CSPP Transitional Justice Area
“International solidarity and support, such as that of Peace Brigades, has been fundamental in guaranteeing our ability to carry out what we want to do: our work in defence of human rights. We are so grateful to Peace Brigades and other international institutions, because we owe them everything, we owe them our lives. Many people in the Committee who have had a public role, have suffered attacks against their lives, against their families, against their freedom, and without a doubt, the role these organisations have played has been fundamental. They have been our right hand, our shield really to help us withstand many of these attacks.”
Franklin Castañeda, presidente of the CSPP
The first human rights organization in Colombia
Founded in 1973 during times of growing social mobilisation and strong State repression, the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) was Colombia’s first human rights defence organisation. Its creation was made possible thanks to the then already famous writer Gabriel García Márquez, who donated the money he received as part of an international award for this purpose. Among the founders of the Committee were representatives of the academic milieu, journalists and trade unionists, who joined efforts to provide legal defence to persons deprived of liberty for political reasons.1
Although after more than forty-five years of existence, an important part of the CSPP’s work still centres on promoting the rights of persons deprived of liberty, other lines of work have been added. Among others, the Committee supports victims, mainly victims of State crimes, enforced disappearance, forced displacement and extrajudicial executions. Recently, the Committee has introduced a program focused on guarantees for peace, intended to monitor the current situation and advise social leaders.2
The organisation has survived the most difficult times in the recent history of Colombia, including the ultimate years of the National Front – the bipartisan liberal-conservative system that ended up excluding a large part of the population and ultimately, led to the emergence of the guerrilla groups3, the permanent state of siege and the repression of social protest. It also witnessed the emergence of paramilitary groups and the ensuing armed conflict from the 1990s to the beginning of the present century. Due to its legal and legitimate work, CSPP has been the victim of persecutions and attacks against its members throughout its history.4
Work for people deprived of liberty and social justice
With its headquarters in Bogotá, CSPP has branch offices in six of the country’s departments: Cundinamarca, Antioquia, Atlántico, Santander, Tolima and Valle del Cauca, and two support teams in Arauca and Cauca. The Committee has approximately hundred-twenty members, among which many are volunteers and delegates from different social organizations.
Historically, the organization has been focused on providing legal and humanitarian representation of people deprived of liberty for political reasons or State arbitrariness. It also carries out activities to strengthen the organisational processes of communities and social organisations, as well as human rights training. The organisation advocates at the local, regional and national levels for the rights to a dignified treatment, a fair and impartial trial and other rights of persons who have been deprived of their liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and prosecuted for participating in social protest.
With its activities CSPP wants to contribute to the debate on the justice system and demands the implementation of a democratic criminal policy with social justice. By doing so, the organisation helps to build a State that respects human rights, democracy and peace with social justice.5
Since the establishment of the Integral System of Justice, Truth, Reparation and Non-Repetition (SIVJRNR), created after the peace agreement between the FARC guerrilla and the government in 2016, CSPP has been dedicating an important part of its work to judicial representation before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal. The Committee sees this transitional justice court as a new opportunity to continue its fight against impunity, in cases of human rights violations and victimisation of the civilian population at the hands of Colombian State agents, in conjunction with paramilitary groups during the armed conflict.6
Alliances for human rights and peace
CSPP has contributed to the creation of initiatives to fight impunity such as ‘Colombia Never Again’, which aims to end impunity for crimes against humanity committed in Colombia, with a focus on recovery of historical memory. The Committee leads the campaign “Defending Freedom: Everybody’s Business”, which denounces arbitrary arrests, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia.
As one of the national civil society delegates, CSPP is part of the National Commission for Security Guarantees, which aims to develop and monitor public policies to stop the assassination of social leaders and dismantle paramilitary successor organisations.
Promoting guarantees for environmental leaders
An increasingly important line of CSPP’s work is the promotion of guarantees for environmental defenders. It provides support to environmental leaders who are being attacked or deprived of liberty due to their denouncements of environmental damages, which often involve private companies.
One of the cases CSPP supports is that of the municipality of San Luis de Palenque in the department of Casanare, in which it defends social leaders who have been subjected to judicial proceedings for having led protests against the activities of the US oil company Frontera Energy (formerly Pacific Energy). Recently this emblematic case was presented to the Arbitrary Detention Working Group of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. This case shows how, through formal agreements between the Government, the security forces, investigative entities (Prosecutor’s Office) and companies, legal proceedings are started against social leaders.7
The same pattern can be frequently identified in 248 other cases, which alongside that of San Luis de Palenque, are documented in the report “Criminalization of the defence of human rights in Colombia: The judicialization of land and territory defenders, environmental and peace defenders”.8 The report is a joint publication of CSPP, the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and COSPACC, an organisation that is also accompanied by PBI.
The investigations show how, between January 2012 and July 2019, 274 human rights defenders across the country were being subjected to judicial proceedings, leading to an increase in judicializations of civil society leaders by 244%. Of these, 74% are environmental leaders. The report was presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington in September 2019.9
Milestones in linking senior military officers to victim’s cases
The fight against impunity is the strongest line of CSPP’s work at present. The organisation handles a large number of cases where it represents victims before ordinary justice courts and the transitional justice tribunal JEP, as well as before international courts. Several of the cases the Committee has taken on have been included in the so-called macro cases of most serious human rights violations during the conflict, prioritised by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.
Among others, CSPP works on cases of extrajudicial executions allegedly committed by Artillery Battalion No. 2 “La Popa” on the Caribbean Coast10, and the XVI Brigade based in Casanare.11 Another case taken on by the Committee is that of the mothers of Soacha, who in August 2018 met face to face with the perpetrators of crimes against their sons, in a hearing before the transitional justice court. During the meeting, fourteen soldiers asked for forgiveness for the death of the youngsters, who were disappeared and killed by an Army unit, which then presented them as defeated guerrilla fighters.12
These cases are especially noteworthy since they involve high-ranking military personnel. A case that stands out is the one involving the only Army General currently detained in Colombia for the so-called “false positives” or extrajudicial executions, Mario Montoya.13
In this context, it is worth noting that the Committee and its allies advocate for the creation of a public control system of promotions in the Army, to prevent military personnel who have been known to approve orders that have led to serious human rights violations from reaching high positions within the institution.14
For the improvement of the prison situation
As part of its efforts to improve the prison situation in the country, CSPP has denounced overcrowding in the country’s penitentiary centres, as well as the precarious conditions many imprisoned people find themselves in. This includes restricted access to water and lack of medical care, as well as systematic threats and aggressions suffered by people deprived of liberty in the country.
More recently, the Committee has been promoting the introduction of a gender perspective in Colombia’s criminal policy. Although the structural problems of the national penitentiary system affect people deprived of their liberty without gender distinction, specific conditions and risks in female prisons urgently need to be addressed. Likewise, the Committee underscores that LGBTI people suffer serious and systematic discrimination, attacks and even violations of their physical integrity at the hands of prison staff. A specialized team within CSPP has the task of advocating to improve this situation.15
Actions in favour of the right to social protest
For many years CSPP has defended the right to peaceful social protest. As part of these efforts, the Committee succeeded in presenting the Colombia case at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing on October 31st 2013 about the situation of social protests in the country. At the hearing, the petitioners – among them, other organizations accompanied by PBI, such as the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CAJAR) and the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers Collective (CCALP) – expressed their concern regarding the repression of the social protest by the authorities.16
Within the framework of the defence of the right to social protest as an exercise of democracy, the CSPP, together with other organisations, launched the campaign “Defend Freedom: an issue for all”, which coordinates a follow-up of the good development of social protests in Bogotá, through the Human Rights Committee. This campaign responds to numerous reports of police abuse, illegal arrests, even homicides, in the context of the various social protests that took place in the country and, in particular, has highlighted the scandals involving the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD).17 The campaign played a major role in the monitoring of the November 2019 National Strike in Bogotá, where the abuse of force by the police resulted in the death of a young man, Dilan Cruz.
In response to these violent actions, the CSPP, together with Cajar and DH Colombia filed a protective action against the public forces for violent acts during the National Strike.18 In September 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the tutela and concluded that the ESMAD police force had carried out a systematic, arbitrary and violent intervention in the protests of November 2019, and included multiple orders to the Ministry of Defence, such as the creation of roundtables for the regulation of the use of force in accordance with international and constitutional standards, an act of public pardon and the suspension of the use of twelve gauge shotguns, such as the one that caused the death of Dilan Cruz.19
The violence and abuse by the public forces, and in particular the ESMAD, culminated in the September 2020 protests in Bogotá following the death of a Bogota citizen, Javier Órdoñez, after being tortured by the police. The citizen’s mobilisation to denounce the abuses of the public forces and this murder were violently repressed and resulted in the death of 13 civilians – at least 8 of them by firearms -, 200 injured civilians and 75 people arrested for acts associated with the development of the demonstrations.20
Land restitution: the case of Hacienda Bellacruz
CSPP provides integral support and represents peasant communities in criminal cases involving land restitution. The Hacienda Bella Cruz case, in the south of Cesar, is probably the first in Colombia where peasants managed to win a lawsuit on land theft and related crimes under the responsibility of powerful private and state actors.
The Committee has been working on this case for many years when the judges finally reached a favourable decision in 2018. After having waited for twenty-two years the victims succeeded in having the Prosecutor’s Office declare that the violent events that occurred at the Bellacruz farm were crimes against humanity. It was also decreed that part of the lands from which they were displaced could not be managed by private persons.21
Threats and attacks
Throughout its history, CSPP has denounced being subjected to constant persecution involving threats, harassment, illegal followings, torture, arbitrary arrests, prosecutions, and even the killing of several of its members.22 As a result of these attacks several sections of the Committee had to be permanently closed and some of its members exiled. Today (2020), almost all of these cases have not been prosecuted or remain unpunished.
At the end of 2019, CSPP and especially its president Franklin Castañeda, suffered serious security incidents that they directly relate to the case against former President Alvaro Uribe Vélez, today Senator of the Republic. The case revolves around alleged payments to imprisoned ex-paramilitaries in order to stop them from linking Uribe to paramilitarism. In an unprecedented event, the Supreme Court of Justice, the highest court in the country, opened investigations of the former president for the crimes of bribery and procedural fraud. In an attempt to hinder the action of justice, Uribe Vélez and his lawyers and spokesmen, launched a public smear campaign directed at CSPP and Castañeda, focusing on their support for the imprisoned ex-paramilitary Juan Guillermo Gonsalve, who is considered a key witness against the former president and is subsequently in great danger.23
The allegations have seriously increased the vulnerability of the organization and its leaders.24 According to Franklin Castañeda this is “a well-orchestrated campaign”, adding: “We know that we are touching the interests of a very powerful sector in the country. That’s why we’re aware that the risks to our lives, our freedom and our good name are high.”25
CSPP has been granted precautionary measures by the IACHR since 1999 and some of its members are protected by measures of the National Protection Unit (UNP). However, according to the organisation, these measures are not enough, as long as the structural causes of the risks suffered by CSPP members are not eliminated.26
In the context of the accusations and defamations related to the judicial investigation of former President Uribe, at the end of 2019 CSPP, and especially its president Franklin Castañeda, have suffered serious security incidents. Castañeda considers that the authorities’ response has been “inadequate”.27 While the criminalisation, attacks and killings of human rights defenders are on the rise, this limited protection capacity of the Colombian authorities is extremely worrying.
Awards and recognition
During its more than forty-five years of existence, CSPP has received several national and international awards and recognitions. One of the most important distinctions is the Republic of France’s Prize for Freedom, Equality and Fraternity, awarded in 1999 by the French Parliament in recognition of the work of the Committee in defence of human rights and its contributions to the creation of a democratic environment in Colombia. In 2009, Gabriel González, then regional coordinator of CSPP, received the annual human rights award from the American organization Human Rights First in New York.
More recently, in 2014, CSPP was among the finalists of the National Award for the Defence of Human Rights in Colombia in the category “Lifetime recognition of organizations with a long history”, and in 2020 the CSPP won the National Human Rights Prize awarded by Diakonia and the Swedish Church in the category “Collective Process of the Year at NGO level”.28
PBI has accompanied the CSPP since 1998.
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