Encounters with Human Rights Defenders
Attorney, Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo, Bogotá D.C.
Portrait: Verónica Giraldo Canal, 2012.
Portrait: Verónica Giraldo Canal, 2012.
August 26th, 2012
Studying in a public university was one of the main factors that led me to become a human rights lawyer. Although my catholic education also contributed to this, it was not until I started studying at the University of Cauca in the city of Popayan that I really understood that the intention to help one’s fellow human is not enough. This intention has to be rooted in political grounds. If you do not try to go further and you do not look for a political explanation for the injustices that you see, you can end up being used, by both the left and the right wing. In this sense, the university provided me with a political training.
In 1999, when I started studying law, the students went on strike against the National Plan of president Pastrana [in power from 1998 to 2002], who intended to raise tuition fees. We wanted to keep tuition fees proportional to the students’ economic means. The fact that I took part in the assemblies and that I became aware of the students’ efforts to preserve the public nature of the university had a great influence on me. Without these students, I would not have had enough to pay my law tuition fees and this made me much more socially committed. I eventually became involved with the student movement, which was very close to the claims of the women, Indigenous and Afro-descendant movements in the Cauca Department. As a first semester law student, I was in charge of getting the students who were victim of repression out of the police stations and to make the follow-up complaints.
In 2002, Uribe’s Government [in power from 2002 to 2010] promoted a strong anti-student attitude. I was involved in a student organization called the Asociación Colombiana de Estudiantes Universitarios and the paramilitaries started to assassinate some of our members in the Universities of Nariño, Antioquia, Córdoba, Atlántico and Santander. My responsibility was, together with other students, to publish our complaints in the media. Since we did not have access to the mass media, I was asked to develop an international visibility campaign and I was sent to universities in Cuba and Mexico to report on the repression we were suffering.
I was a militant of the Partido Comunista Colombiano from the year 2000, and in 2004 I was elected leader of the Juventud Comunista [Communist Youth]. I was also elected Student Representative to the University’s Consejo Superior, the most important organ of the University, which brings together representatives of the President, of the Education Department, and of the faculty. I was the first woman, and also clearly identified as leftist, to ever sit at the Superior Council of this public but conservative university.
In November of 2004, a military patrol came looking for me inside the law school. Fortunately, I was not at the university, but this got me really panicking. The hardest part is hurting one’s family. Although I could not tell my mother that I was threatened, she could notice from my voice tone that there was something wrong with me. It’s also terrible because you start taking your distances from the people that you like in order to protect them, because if the paramilitaries see you with certain people, they associate them to your movement and they will likely be threatened too.
In 2005, I started being more severely harassed: individuals looking like soldiers waited for me on the street, people riding motorcycles followed me and there was always a car parked near my home. Although I had been involved in politics for many years, the consequences of the personal threats were horrible. I felt very lonely and in danger, and also sad and abandoned for not being able to count on the public authorities’ protection. I received threats, the police was following me and the university Principal made everything that he could to expulse me from the Consejo Superior. It was like being a dwarf fighting against a giant. It was such a psychologically dark moment that I started doubting whether I was right. One day, when we were in the height of the student strike, I remember looking at a group of students on hunger strike who looked completely exhausted. At that moment, I felt that it was useless to hurt ourselves if no one even wanted to listen at us or support us in our suffering. In an absurd way, you almost end up justifying those who are hurting you.
Finally, a written threat came to my home from a paramilitary organization saying that they knew that I was the leader of the Juventud Comunista and that they knew where my family lived in the Nariño Department. The situation had gotten unsustainable, since the public office that protected me, as representative at the Consejo Superior, was about to end. The Juventud Comunista decided to remove me from my position to protect me. There were reputed professors, from the left and from the right, who protested against what was happening to me in their classes and I received a lot of support from the Faculty Dean, who allowed me to pass my exams hastily. On May 27th 2005, I fled to France thanks to the support of the French Mouvement Jeunes communistes de France.
Something that happened to me shows that not everything in the Colombian conflict is black or white, and that there are always shades of gray. When I enrolled in the University in 1999, I met a student who had come from the city of Armenia, Quindío Department, as a consequence of the big earthquake suffered there. I helped him a lot to integrate to our class, and eventually each one followed his own academic path. In 2004, I met him again and he asked that we meet urgently. He told me: “Don’t ask me why, but I want you to know that you are under investigation for the crime of rebellion”. He was an undercover policeman who passed off as a student. He had realized that I was not an insurgent or a member of the guerrilla, and wanted to help me in return for the gestures of solidarity I had shown him. Sometimes, we think that those who work for the police are bad and aggressive people, but this proved me that there are also policemen capable of taking risks to protect others.
I went to the prosecutor’s office to access the preliminary investigation against me and to collaborate so as to defend myself. I realized that they had pictures of all our student demonstrations and of several meetings that I had attended. In their opinion, the most serious pictures showed me in the fields, wearing outdoor clothes and rubber boots. [Armed members of the guerilla usually wear such boots.] Everything was so stupid, because these pictures had been taken in the School of Agriculture of the University, and I was standing right next to the Principal! The prosecutor was very aggressive and all his questions were biased: “Why are you against the University? Why do people in the University don’t like you? Why do you organize so many demonstrations?”
I saw from my file that the prosecutors had accessed all the declarations that I had made in the Consejo Superior meetings, and some of them were taken out of context. In one of them, I was telling the President’s representative that I did not understand how President Uribe’s Government was able to negotiate with the paramilitaries in Santa Fe de Ralito [where a peace accord was reached in 2004] and not with students, although we were unarmed and did not commit extrajudicial executions. This showed that the public places where I had worked were filled with people who cooperated with the paramilitaries. For example, years later I realized that the then Governor of the Cauca Department was investigated for “parapolitics” [that is, collaboration with paramilitary groups]. The Government’s national policy was that anyone speaking out against it was stigmatized as an insurgent. Finally, the investigation against me was closed and all charges were abandoned.
I spent three years in France, where I studied a master’s in Public International Law and another in Human Rights, I worked for a year in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica and then another one in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. There, I always felt like a foreigner. Obviously, it was interesting to participate in the social movements that I discovered, but I did not feel that I was part of the hope for my country. On the contrary, when I was involved in the student movement in Colombia, even if we were doomed to fail, feeling part of the change gave me hope.
I think that the political persecution that I lived was way less difficult than what other left-wing activists suffered. For instance, what my legal psychology professor Juan Diego Castellón, who was for me a mentor, had to go through was really painful. He was an activist for the Partido Comunista Colombiano, a representative of the Unión Patriótica at the Cauca Department Legislative Assembly and nowadays is the Principal of the University of Cauca. The paramilitaries accused him of having gone to Cuba to receive military training from the guerrilla, while he had actually gone to the island to do legal research. He had to exile himself to the United States, where he earned his doctorate. It was a hard blow for me to realize that even a man like him could be attacked.
Another shocking event was the disappearance of Hernán Henry Díaz on April the 18th 2012. He was also an activist of the Unión Patriótica, the Partido Comunista Colombiano, and the Marcha Patriótica movement in the Putumayo Department. He was the person who accompanied me when I had cases in the region, who protected me and who kept me informed about the political situation in the Department. He was forcibly disapeared a few days before this new movement was launched in Bogotá. I am not ready yet to accept that Henry was killed and I hold out hope that he is still alive.
Once back in Colombia, I became a member of the Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (CPDH), and later on joined the international law department of the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo, Bogotá (CCAJAR). The situation has improved a little for human rights work, partly because president Santos abandoned his predecessor’s idea, according to which human rights activists form the political wing of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). However, our conditions are not easy. Besides, our work is often regarded as a volunteer and charity one. I have the feeling that people do not appreciate its professional value and that they think that, since our work requires personal commitment, we do not need to be well paid or respected.
Unfortunately, there is still a huge need for human rights work, because the internal armed conflict has not been resolved yet -which should be done politically- and also because there is an endless number of victims still seeking justice. This, together with the fact that I had the chance to discover so many social movements in Colombia, that I fought for public university education and that I personally experienced political violence because of my ideas, made human rights defence my life project.