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Colombia: Testimonies of terror and torture
Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. Stephanie Peacock reports on how political activists are victimised by paramilitaries and government forces
Stephanie Peacock / Monday 4 May 2009

Watching people walking around the busy streets of Bogotá, going in and out of office blocks, shops and cafes, it is easy to forget that, despite Colombia’s beauty and wealth of natural resources, it is a country gripped by violence. In fact, Colombia has been in the throes of an armed conflict for more than 40 years.

The poverty and unrest are clear to see when you step outside the centre of the capital city. The army and police line the streets. Shanty towns line mile upon mile of hillsides where people live in constant fear and in shacks without running water or electricity.

Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist: five were killed in March this year alone. There are four million displaced people. Opposition figures and human rights activists are regularly imprisoned and even killed for speaking out against the government.

I recently visited Colombia as part of a Justice for Colombia delegation of parliamentarians and trade unionists. We had meetings with a wide range of people and groups across Colombian society: from trade unions, students and teachers to indigenous people, peasant farmers and human rights defenders. And we met senior members of the Colombian government, including right-wing President Alvaro Uribe.

We heard terrible accounts of the brutal and unlawful tactics used to suppress opposition in the country. We listened to many testimonies of murder, torture, disappearances, imprisonment and forced displacement. These accounts were clear: these atrocities are carried out with impunity by the military and state-backed paramilitary forces.

At Buen Pastor prison in Bogotá, we spoke to the women political prisoners incarcerated there. Many had been detained simply for speaking out against the government; others were held in a mass arrest to clear desirable land. Sadly, arrests and imprisonment are a risk of political involvement and many of those incarcerated have no idea when – if at all – they will be freed.

Five university students have already been killed this year. At the National University of Colombia, many are fearful of becoming involved in the student union or the societies and clubs that we would take for granted in this country.

During our visit, Hernan Polo Barrera, the leader of Sitraenal, the teachers’ union, was shot dead in front of his house. His teenage daughter, who was standing with him at the time of the attack, was badly injured.

We heard of the horrific killings and torture suffered by political activists, as well as ordinary people – peasant farmers and workers. I will never forget the look on the face of one boy as he told us through tears about the death of his father who had left one morning to go to work and never returned. He was murdered by right-wing paramilitary death squads.

The activities of the paramilitary forces are condoned and even actively supported by the government and army. These crimes are aggravated by the seeming immunity enjoyed by the perpetrators and the failure of the legal system to prosecute the killers and those who give them their orders. Instead of imprisoning the real criminals, the government is locking up trade unionists, members of the political opposition and human rights activists, as well as imprisoning and killing workers and peasant farmers in a bid to claim that the fight against insurgents is being won

There must be an immediate end to the criminalisation of legitimate and democratic opposition in Colombia. There must be support for dialogue, a peace process and an end to extra-judicial executions carried out by the Colombian military.

Until these steps are taken and while the dire human rights situation is unchanged, the British Government should withdraw all military aid and support for Colombia. Only when human and labour rights are respected in an internationally verifiable way should we contemplate returning to present levels of support.

The British Government’s recent announcement that it would reduce military aid to Colombia because of human rights concerns is welcome, but it does not go nearly far enough.

While I was struck by the appalling state of affairs in Colombia – including the vicious treatment meted out to trade unionists and political activists whose only crime is to stand up and speak out against injustice – I was also touched by the strength, kindness and determination of the people we met who continue to wage a campaign for a peaceful country. They deserve the solidarity and support of progressive people in Britain and throughout the world.