Encounters with Human Rights Defenders
Rafael Palencia Fernández
Attorney, President of Asociación Colombiana de Defensores de Derechos Humanos
Portrait: Verónica Giraldo Canal, 2012.
July 4th, 2012
My human rights career began in 1994 in the city of Cartagena, Colombia. At that time, I became very preoccupied by the high number of murders of common criminals that remained without investigation. I did not understand that, in a city of that size, extrajudicial killings could happen and be left unpunished. This worried me. I joined the Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (CPDH) and began working on a wide array of issues, including police brutality during peaceful demonstrations of hospital workers.
This work eventually led me to become the subject of a judicial framing. On February 20th, 2003, the authorities informed the media that a terrorist attack was imminent. Along with my employment at the CPDH, I was also inspector for the Labour Ministry. Since February 1st, I had been on vacation and visiting family members in the city of Barranquilla. Upon my return in Cartagena, I was captured in the course of an impressive military and propaganda operation. An intelligence report accused me of being a member of the Manuel Rodriguez Torizes de Cartagena militia, which was linked to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). I was imprisoned exactly one year, four months and eight days.
One of the alleged proofs to support my arrest was a statement made by a coffee merchant made inside the offices of the Seccional de Policía Judicial e Investigación (SIJIN). According to this statement, I was, with others, member of a militia belonging to the FARC. This merchant was never brought before a court of law to ratify and confirm his statement, and thus was never recognized as a witness. Another document presented during this process was an intelligence report of no probative value. Finally, the prosecution introduced a document entitled “Escuela de milicias bolivarianas”, which they claimed to have found on my computer in my office at the Labour Ministry. They also claimed to have found, at my desk, a floppy disk containing this same document. However, a technical evaluation revealed that the document had been created on February 13th and modified on February 18th,, during my absence and on a computer different from mine.
I would also like to mention that the prosecutor that allowed the creation of such documents, Demostenes Camargo de Avila, is still a head prosecutor in Cartagena. It is also worth noting that this same prosecutor later became infamous for his arrest of professor Alfredo Correa de Andreis, who later was assassinated by paramilitaries with the help of intelligence provided by the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS).
I was detained in 2003 at the San Sebastian de Ternera de Cartagena prison. I would argue that, after torture, deprivation of liberty is the hardest situation for one to endure. This is due to the poor conditions of imprisonment: isolation, lack of health care, inadequate and unhealthy food, impossibility of working or studying, humiliating searches, etc. That said, I contributed to the creation of a human rights committee and a working group during my incarceration, to negotiated with prison authorities for better conditions and, especially, improve the visit conditions for family members. At that time, members of the Asociación Colombiana de Abogados Defensores de Derechos Humanos (ACADEHUM) offered me their support. They expressed concern regarding my case before the Director of Criminal Prosecutions, along with the FIDH, the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR), the CPDH and Avocats sans frontières France.
Finally, as the legal proceeding unfolded, the prosecution had no other choice but to withdraw the initial charge and ask for an acquittal. A judge –an impartial one– rendered that verdict. Despite the illegality of the actions undertaken by the prosecutor, I had full confidence in the criminal process and never thought that I would be found guilty.
After my release, I suffered new attacks to my personal integrity. Armed individuals were monitoring my home and I decided to move to Bogota. Again, the persecution continued: I was being followed, trucks remained parked in front of my house, and my cellular phone was tapped, as I later realized while accessing DAS archives. Among others, my conversations with Alirio Muñoz, one of the directors of CCAJAR, were intercepted. These focused on human rights promotion, and in particular on the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
Being threatened is a major attack on personal integrity, because it puts the individual in a permanent state of anguish, anxiety, emotional instability and suffering. Your quality of life is impaired because you keep thinking about how to protect yourself, while at the same time you cannot trust the State’s protection. For instance, when I arrived in Bogota, I headed to the protection program of the Interior Ministry. I was told to contact authorities like the DAS and the police, in order for them to perform a risk assessment. But it was precisely this national police that had organized my legal framing, and it was from the DAS that criminal actions against human rights organizations were prepared!
In 2006, I received death threats from illegal groups at the CCAJAR offices. Those were a consequence of my participation in a humanitarian mission in the Montes de María region, a conflict area where we were informed that human rights violations were committed, such as extrajudicial executions, massive arbitrary detentions and “falsos positivos”. [This expression refers to the killing of civilians by State agents, which are later officially recorded as members of the guerrilla killed in combat.]
I then decided to move to an apartment downtown. In 2007, while I was away from home, the apartment was subject to a search ordered by a prosecutor from Barranquilla. The hard drives of my computers and other goods were stolen. The search was based on intelligence according to which I stocked arms and explosives for the FARC. These allegations proved to be false, and I was later presented with apologies. In fact, at that time, I had a video editing room inside my apartment. I worked on videos to maintain myself, since I could not work as an attorney anymore and since my economic situation was precarious. I felt again that my integrity was compromised, and I decided to move to San José, Costa Rica. I stayed there for one year, and did an internship with the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), with the support of Amnesty International.
Since my return from San José, I have not been the object of visible persecution again. However, I do not rule out the possibility that I could be under surveillance and that my communications be monitored. In addition, I do not feel that the situation is conducive to my return to my hometown of Cartagena, since assassinations of attorneys are a common occurrence there and authorities do not prosecute those responsible. In the last decade, no less than 13 human rights attorneys were murdered in that city.
The persecution I suffered has convinced me that my work after my liberation should serve to strengthen that of human rights attorneys. In Colombia, there is a deep and lasting human rights crisis, and the Rule of Law must stand as a their guarantor. I decided to join ACADEHUM, where I currently hold the position of president of the national Board of Directors.
When I started working in 1994, I knew that denouncing human rights violations would indubitably disturb those responsible and that I would face their reactions. What made me confident was that my actions corresponded the Rule of Law. Never could I have imagined that my actions could lead the State to persecute me. I was animated by the desire to help reduce violence and serious human rights violations against various members of society, such as union and civic leaders.
Today, I am pleased that we were able to motivate other attorneys, students, civic leaders, intellectuals, etc., to participate in this struggle. It is important to motivate the new generations of Colombians so that the country can develop a culture that demands legal sanctions for violations, a better policy of prevention of such violations, and a better judiciary oversight to uphold and redress these rights. In my case, my claim against the State for reparations was rejected on procedural grounds, but I would feel satisfied if in Colombia the work of human rights defenders and the economic, social and cultural rights of the victims of the conflict were respected.