by James Jordan,
Alliance for Global Justice National Co-Coordinator
Liliany Obando outside prison gates
The International Network in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners (of which The Alliance for Global Justice is a co-founder) has just received the wonderful news that labor activist, human rights defender and Colombian Political Prisoner Liliany Obando will be released on bond tomorrow from the prison where she has been held for three years and seven months on charges of “Rebellion”.
Liliany Obando was arrested August 8, 2008 while serving as the Human Rights Coordinator for FENSUAGRO, Colombia’s largest organization of peasant farmers and farm workers unions and associations. She was apprehended while finishing a report about the more than 1,500 Fensuagro members who had been killed by Colombian military and paramilitary troops over its first 30 years of existence. She was detained on the basis of evidence allegedly obtained from computers that “miraculously” survived an attack against a FARC encampment across the border from the Colombian Department of Putumayo, in Ecuador. That camp was not a camp carrying out aggressions, but was involved in negotiations toward the release of FARC captives Ingrid Betancourt and three US citizens. The Uribe administration had learned that the camp had had back-channel talks with members of the US State Department. The attack, ordered by then-Defense Minister and current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, was widely considered to be an attack on hopes for a peace process itself.
Evidence said to be contained in the computers was not credible. The international police agency INTERPOL said that the sources of files the computer contained could not be authenticated. The chain of custody of the evidence was broken and unaccounted for several times during the first days it was seized and at least two Colombian law enforcement personnel testified that the files had been manipulated. Charges against Obando were made on the basis of copies of emails said to have been found on the computer. However, Police Captain Ronald Hayden Coy Ortiz, who oversaw the initial investigation testified in court that the computers contained no email records.
Nevertheless, Obando’s case was stretched out over more than three years without resolution. Even when the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the evidence against her was inadmissible, she continued to be jailed
But even if the Supreme Court, Interpol and the government’s own witnesses could be ignored, an international campaign for her freedom could not. After years of friend of the court statements signed by such notable supporters as Prof. Noam Chomsky, Sanctuary Movement founder and former President of the Presbyterian Church Rev. John Fife, Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin and others, petitions, letters, emails, demonstrations, phone calls and delegations on her behalf, Liliany Obando is finally looking forward to being united with her two children and other friends and family–and to her freedom. It is no mistake that her release was announced concurrent with a major conference in support of the more than 8,000 Colombian political prisoners: the Colombia Behind Bars Forum, with guests from around the world, including representatives of the INSPP and AFGJ. This is yet another example of the power and influence of international pressure!
Nevertheless, all is not settled regarding Liliany’s case. The court process has not been suspended and she still could be sent back to jail. Further, political prisoners released into the general public are often at risk of violence in the first days, weeks and months following their liberty.
I spoke today to Liliany at the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) Women’s Penitentiary just moments after receiving the news. I was so happy, overjoyed I could barely contain myself. Lily greeted me, “You heard the good news?” Yes, of course, I’d heard it. I asked her how she was feeling, and she said, “I have mixed emotions. I want to leave, but I don’t want to leave the other political prisoners behind. We have to keep working until all the political prisoners are free.”
Yes, that is the Liliany Obando that so many of us have come to know, love and look up to. Never tiring of the struggle for peace, justice and human and labor rights, the day she entered the prison she started collecting the testimonies of other political prisoners and organizing on their behalf. From within the jail cells, Liliany proposed the establishment of the International Network for the Political Prisoners and always insisted that we not only advocate for her freedom, but for the freedom of all her comrades deprived of liberty. And she insisted that we not just advocate for the freedom of the political prisoners, but for peace in Colombia.
From the beginning, the INSPP has insisted that a first step toward a real and just peace in Colombia will begin with a humanitarian exchange of Prisoners of War, and with the immediate freedom of all of Colombia’s Prisoners of Conscience and Prisoners Due to Judicial Set-ups.
Today there are many indications that a legitimate peace process could be ready to begin in Colombia. The recent announcements that the FARC would release all their current military prisoners met with the release of Liliany are significant. But international pressure must not let up! Now is the time to demand the freedom of all Colombia’s 8,000 political prisoners and, more, for an inclusive peace process based on dialogue and negotiations, and wit
hout unrealistic pre-conditions. And for us in the US, we must demand an end to our country’s sponsorship of war and repression in Colombia, including our funding and restructuring of Colombian prisons where political prisoners are concentrated under harsh conditions.
But as we vow to continue this struggle…let us also take a moment to celebrate this great victory. As Liliany once told me, “By day we struggle, by night we dance!
As a high profile political prisoner, Liliany Obando is under the threat and risk of violence and there has been a request for international accompaniment for her during her first days of freedom. AFGJ and the INSPP are preparing for the possibility of traveling to Colombia to help provide protection. There is also a need to raise more than $3,000 to cover her bond payment.