Liliany Obando: Colombian political prisoner

W. T. Whitney Jr.

When the Colombian state arrested her on August 8, 2008, sociologist and documentary film maker Liliany Obando, mother of two, was serving as human rights director and fund raiser for Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural workers’ union.  A week earlier, she’d issued a report documenting 1500 union members murdered or disappeared since 1976.

Animosity against Fensuagro from on high is a natural. Many members, poverty stricken peasants, had been driven off small land holdings so that industrialized agriculture and megaprojects could proceed. State security forces and paramilitaries did the dirty work. The union, with 80,000 members and 37 union affiliates, has resisted. As an effective human rights advocate, Obando was ripe for the picking. She would be silenced and a cautioned Fensuagro be brought to heel, eventually.

Obando and other political prisoners are prisoners of empire. Big money sway in Colombia rests on militarization and repressive modalities, including prisons. That’s where U.S. financing and direction fit in.

Unions and human rights groups in Europe, Canada, and Australia are supporting Obando. She’s gained emblematic status among 7500 political prisoners in Colombian jails. Many have never been tried, or, like Obando, are subjected to glacially slow judicial processes.

Two recent developments in her situation are of likely interest to those following her case and to Colombia watchers generally.  A judicial hearing was held on January 20.  And a revealing interview has circulated on alternative Spanish language news sources. Excerpts appear in translation below.

The recent hearing followed others interspersed amongst two brief trial sessions, one in August, 2009, a year after her arrest, and another a year later. Testimony from a police functionary reinforced earlier Defense Ministry testimony to the effect that the whereabouts over three days almost three years ago of supposedly incriminating computer files is a mystery, that documentation of a chain of custody then is lacking, and that the files were word documents rather than emails, as alleged by the Colombian government. The former are easily manipulated.

The Colombian military allegedly took possession of the files from computers seized on March 1, 2008 when a FARC guerrilla encampment was attacked in Ecuador. They belonged to top FARC leader Raul Reyes who was killed in the U.S. assisted raid. Computer emails studied afterwards allegedly demonstrate collaboration between Obando and Reyes. That’s the basis for charges against her of rebellion and complicity with terrorism.

The court judging Obando reportedly is waiting for testimony from Canadian unionists that that they were donating to Fensuagro rather than supporting guerrilla insurgents.  

The judge in Obando’s case has now heard testimony suggesting officials had ample opportunity to alter files to present a picture of terrorist ties... Coincident with her arrest, 11 other leftist political figures and journalists were similarly fingered, but she was the only one jailed.  

Her story highlights the phenomenon of prisons and incarcerations as a link in Colombia’s chain of repression and war against the poor. In addition to political prisoners, victims include four million Colombians displaced from their land, 50 percent of rural Colombians living in poverty, and tens of thousands of unionists, indigenous peoples, students, and leftists killed or disappeared.

The U.S. government provides funding and direction for Colombian prisons whose capacity from 2000 on increased 40 percent, with political prisoners up 300 percent. From 63,000 prisoners in 2007, there were 106,000 last year. With burgeoning arrests of activists in January, along with a flurry of reports on torture and suicides inside prisons, silence on prisons becomes difficult to maintain.

After her arrest, Liliany Obando described herself as a “communist political prisoner, prisoner of conscience, and survivor of genocide against the Patriotic Union.” She tells something of who she is in a late January interview.

Excerpts from interview with Liliany Obando

See transcript and listen to audio at,

What are they accusing you of?

What’s happening to thousands of us men and women is that we are in opposition to a State and some governments we regard as unjust. They accuse us of “rebellion.”  And furthermore, to make penalties more severe, Colombian justice for some years has resorted to assigning penalties for any connection with terrorist activities whatever. In my case, I am accused of rebellion” and “managing resources related to terrorist activities.”

The process I am involved with has its origins in Operation Phoenix. Phoenix is the operation in which the Colombian Army, together apparently with foreign military forces, intruded illegally into the territory of another country, Ecuador, and the process turns on the supposed acquisition at that campsite of computer files, illegally acquired  … Without an order, with no authorization from a competent authority in the other country, “proofs” are nullified. But more, there’s been after- the - fact manipulation of the same supposed evidence.

Frame up of human rights defenders

They have tried to put a smoke screen around the “para-politics” scandal (paramilitaries tied to politicians). For that, they needed to create something designated as “FARC – politics.”

When one works for truth, for peace, for justice, then one has to require that all this be clarified. Let there be truth and clarity about what happened there. That’s where all this process of “FARC - politics” came from and allowed them to put many people in the public pillory. And beginning with that supposed “evidence,” they’re hoping to pass judgment on many more.

We who are taking on serious work in defense of human rights are persecuted. My work has to do with bringing human rights tools and legal material to peasant communities …I carry out work in the communities directed at popular education and shaping of human rights.  That’s what disturbs governments, all of them: that there are people defending the human rights of the most vulnerable populations of Colombia. 

I could be dead at this moment. … Any of us who defend human rights in Colombia, trade unionists, for example, take on high- risk work … receiving threatening calls, being on black lists, in intelligence reports.

Rights of mothers who are political prisoners

They’ve found no legal basis for denying me, as they do, detention at home ... To be in a jail in my capacity as a sociologist has allowed me to do field work on the penitentiary and imprisonment situation. It’s chaotic. There’s no policy thinking about rehabilitation… In the case of women, prison policies have never contemplated the condition of gender.

That’s seen in the situation with children. They allow a visit from our small children less than 12 years old only once a month. This creates a difficult situation. Some boys and girls live together with us on the inside, and it’s a very difficult situation. There are children that have a different level of psychosocial development [and are] subjected to situations of abuse, shouts, situations that a small child must not be living through.

In prisons where there are mothers with their children, there are no adequate infirmaries…There is the looming threat that children are going to be taken off to “family welfare” [and removed from their mothers.] Also in some women’s prisons there exist infant and toddler nurseries but they are not attended by suitable personnel… There have been attempts to violate some of these children in the nursery, or abuse physically.

Personally I have suffered more than enough persecution from INPEC personnel. (National Penitentiary and Prison Institute)  Here in prison, I have tried to keep on with my work as a human rights defender. We see a multitude of human rights offenses and I have taken on protests along these lines, and this obviously has led to animosity toward me on the part of custodial personnel. Many situations working against the rest of the comrades too, degrading treatment, humiliations, and resort to non-allowed punishments, are part of our daily lives. [There are] situations of torture and depredations against even the minimal conditions of life.

Political prisoners in general  

Prison conditions are rigorous for everybody, but for us political prisoners, they are even more difficult. We are considered “internal enemies.” For example, we are in a high security pavilion, isolated, restricted, and living under severe conditions. On the other hand, there are pavilions with privileges like those for “para-political” or white collar prisoners.

What happens to political convictions?

They locked up my body, but my commitment remains firm: They aren’t going to break me by putting me behind bars. On the contrary, the so many injustices we see against political prisoners confirm for us the justice of struggle for a different country. Nevertheless I have to say that the state tries to bend and to break the moral of political prisoners in every possible way.  In fact we denounce the “Law of Justice and Peace” and all these immoral inducements to lie, to hand over, to finger others also committed to social struggle…We ask under national and international laws that they respect us and respect our classification as political prisoners…When they mix us in with paramilitaries, they put our security at risk and that of people visiting us.

7500 political prisoners: what do the media say?

“I think that communications media ought to carry out the function of informing and not of misinforming….They ought also to give a passing glance to what’s happening in the prisons, with their thousands and thousands of political prisoners …many of them innocent. They’re in prison for having voiced criticism of the State.

Imprisonment up during January, 2011

We are persecuted and judged.  Strength is needed, and morale must be high. One has to keep going forward, for the sake of a new Colombia, distinct, democratic, and encompassing the social justice we need. No matter where we are called from, the struggle continues. We inside prison think our protests must continue, even from behind bars.  We think people in situations of persecution don’t have to be abandoned to fear… As a political opposition, we know these situations are part of our struggle. I would call upon social organizations: that they not abandon their members when they land in prison, when they come upon a difficult situation. That’s because it’s good for the struggle to continue from wherever the social activist finds himself or herself.

International campaign for your liberation

There’s been a campaign for my release, and I am clear that this campaign is not a campaign for an individual but we have made it into an extensive campaign for all the political prisoners in Colombia. There are many social organizations from the most diverse regions that have backed us. Many human rights organizations, unions, and personalities have converged.

What about resistance among peasants, indigenous, and Afro-Colombians?

A fraternal embrace! All of my solidarity towards all those women and men fighting for a life of dignity … Oh, that they continue on, in spite of difficulties involved with social struggle in Colombia, because we deserve a peaceful and more just country.

The computer “evidence” is invalid

We tell them that that from the point of view of international and national law, the “evidence” is null and void. Nevertheless, as we have seen in my process, they are moving ahead.  That’s been my struggle in all of this: to demonstrate the illegality and invalidation of these “proofs,” because it’s not only Liliany Obando who is in prison today, but they are presuming to apply the same “proofs” to many more people.  And at that point this would also have to become a collective struggle.

Read interview (in Spanish) also at:, or, on January 28, 201l, at:"hay-siete-mil-quinientos-presos-polĂ­ticos-de-los-que-no-se-habla-nunca"-

INSPP statement on escalation of political arrests and prisoner abuses in Colombian prisons

The International Network in Solidarity with Colombia's Political Prisoners (INSPP) is deeply troubled by a recent series of political arrests and fatalities under questionable circumstances in Colombian prisons. Already in the first month of 2011, there have been at least two such fatalities and four arrests of student and labor activists. The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos speaks about improvements in the human rights situation in the country, but the indications are otherwise.

On January 13th, the poet, university student and cultural activist Angye Gaona was arrested in Bucaramanga with no explanation nor formal charges filed. On January 17th, student activists Julian Andoni Dominguez and William Rivera Rueda, also a member of the Informal Workers union, were arrested in Bucaramanga. Again, no explanation was given and no charges filed. Another arrest that occurred on the 17th, in the city of Medellin, was that of Aracely Cañaveral Velez. For the past twenty years, she has been a leader in labor organizing for the Garment Workers, Textile and Informal Workers unions. Cañaveral is the sole provider for a minor-age child and elderly mother. The day following her arrest, she was moved to a prison 703 kilometers from her family and charged with conspiracy to commit assault and drug trafficking.

On January 18th, the INSPP learned of the death of political prisoner Jose Albeiro Manjarres Cupitre due to terminal cancer of the stomach. Manjarres was an inmate of the US funded and designed Palogordo prison in GirĂłn--part of the "New Penitentiary Culture", a US-Colombian project to redesign maximum and medium security prisons. Despite legal petitions and a hunger strike by fellow prisoners to get Manjarres adequate treatment, the circumstances of his illness and death are tantamount to torture. The prison refused to provide adequate diagnosis and treatment for Manjarres, although he began suffering severe abdominal pains in July, 2009. Instead, prison health contractors told him he had "acute gastritis". He did not learn the full extent of his condition until December 17th. Even then, he was not taken to a prison equipped with proper hospice facilities and treatment for pain, dying instead in the hospital wing of La Modelo prison.

The INSPP also learned of the suicide by hanging of Leandro Salcedo on January 21st. Salcedo was being held at La TramacĂşa prison, the first of the prisons built as a part of the "New Penitentiary Culture". La TramacĂşa is infamous for its terrible conditions, including limiting of inmate access to running water for only ten minutes a day and repeated findings of fecal contamination of prison food. Salcedo had been held in solitary confinement for nine months, 24 hours a day, with no access to sunlight and in temperatures regularly reaching 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit). Some inmates in La TramacĂşa have been held in solitary confinement for as long as two years.

With more than 7,500 political prisoners, Colombian prisons are increasingly functioning to crush political dissent and to serve as a theater of war. Political prisoners are being moved from special units into the general population where they are singled out for violence by paramilitary gangs and prison guards. Since the beginning of the "New Penitentiary Culture", prison capacity has been increased by 40%. At the same time, the number of provably arbitrary political arrests has risen by 300%--cases later thrown out of court for lack of evidence, usually after an average three years of incarceration.

The INSPP calls on the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate conditions in Colombian prisons and the treatment of political prisoners. We call on the Colombian government to:

1) Stop the torture, abuse and neglect of political--and all--prisoners.

2) Segregate political prisoners into separate units for their protection.

3) Stop all politically motivated arrests.

4) Negotiate for a humanitarian exchange of prisoners of war as a first step toward dialogue for peace.

5) Free all Prisoners of Conscience and Political Frame-ups immediately.

Letter to Defence Minister from Australia's tertiary education union

17th December 2010 

The Hon Stephen Smith

Minister for Defence

PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600 

Dear Minister, 

As you will be aware, the Colombian regime is currently holding hundreds of political prisoners.  Those deprived of their liberty include human rights defenders, trade unionists, student and community leaders and academics. 

I trust that you will agree that this practice of jailing innocent people because of their opposition to Government policies is completely unacceptable. Therefore, we hope the Australian Government will speak out forcefully about this situation and demand that the Colombian Government free those that continue to be jailed for expressing their political opinions. 

British academics and parliamentarians have recently called for the release of the following Colombian political prisoners: trade unionists, Rosalba Gaviria and Liliany Obando; human rights defenders, David Ravelo Crespo, Jose Samuel Rojas and Carmelo Agamez and university professor, Dr Miguel Angel Beltran.  In Australia, we also believe that these political prisoners must be released as they have been in jail for well over a year without having been convicted of any crime whatsoever. 

The Colombian regime cannot expect to have normal relations with democratic countries such as Australia as long as they continue to imprison their critics.  We look forward to hearing from you with regard to any progress that you have made in encouraging the Colombian authorities to free their political prisoners. 

Yours faithfully, 

Genevieve Kelly

State Secretary