EL ESPECTADOR, March 25, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
So far, 51 people have been charged, accused, and convicted in the framework of the events that took place during the protests in 2021, according to a report by four rapporteurs and a working group from the United Nations who studied the arbitrary arrests and the criminalization of protest by the Colombian government in the Strike. Using four rapporteurs and a work group, the United Nations (ONU) turned over its report on the arbitrary arrests and the criminalization of protest by the administration of former President Iván Duque during the 2021 National Strike. In the document they call the attention of the prior administration to the obligations of governments to furnish effective resources to victims of human rights violations, like equal and effective access to justice; adequate, effective, and prompt reparation for damage suffered; and adequate access to pertinent information about the violations and the systems for obtaining reparation.
The National Strike of 2021 detonated on April 28 in the form of opposition to a tax reform bill promoted by the Iván Duque administration, and it set off protests throughout the country that lasted for months. “In spite of experiencing scenes of confrontation, the national strike was primarily of peaceful character, with multiple artistic expressions and initiatives of solidarity, with a communitarian basis,” explains the UN. However, civil society reported high numbers of eye injuries, people killed, aggression against people defending human rights, alleged attacks on the press, as well as complaints that claimed abuse of power and authority, and police violence.
A year and a half after the start of the National Strike, in 2022, social organizations registered around 228 prosecutions connected to the social protest. 145 people were arrested and taken into custody, 113 were put in jail, and 32 in house arrest. According to the report, two types of prosecution were identified; one, when people were arrested during the first months of the massive protests, and the other type, after July of 2021, and until June of 2022, when the arrests were made by court order and as a result of an investigation process by the Judicial Police and the Attorney General’s Office.
In the first type of prosecution, the UN says that after the arrest, the people made an initial appearance before a judge, and when there was a lack of solid proof and specification of the defendant’s conduct, the majority of the arrestees were released. In the second situation, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, at the time, registered 1,970 arrests in the context of the protests. 1,685 of those were considered flagrant, and 285 were ordered by a court, as well as 18,501 who were transferred for their
protection, 531 of whom had taken part in the protests.
The international agency also documented that in many of these cases, the right to liberty had not been respected. People were often not informed of the reason for their arrest, and there was lack of access to an attorney; added to the lack of communication with their families, and the lack of a presence of the Ombudsman’s Office during the proceedings. Some people were put in jail but their arrest was not registered in official records. The report also mentions that, on occasion, police used places not officially recognized and controlled with protection of liberty, where men, women, and minors were all in custody without any separation.
Besides that, the second form of prosecution observed by the UN evidenced a second modality of criminalizing social protest. In this one, the arrests were made as a result of court orders, issued as a result of an investigation by the Judicial Police and the Attorney General’s Office. In those cases, the crimes charged were terrorism, criminal conspiracy, instigation to commit a crime, and other particularly serious crimes like torture, kidnapping, attempted homicide or homicide, use of minors in the commission of crimes, traffic, fabrication, and carrying of explosives taken from public supplies, damage to the property of others, among other things.
In this framework, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia registered 110 cases of people tried after court order, including 15 women who were arrested and jailed. In 85 of the cases registered, the Attorney General’s Office included the crime of criminal conspiracy for terrorist purposes, and in 54 cases the charge was terrorism. In those cases, the defendants were arrested and jailed. Besides other inflations by the prosecutors of the type of crimes committed, the report points out that the prosecutors filed those charged when their own agency had approved in 2016 a directive establishing textually that “the crime of terrorism is not to be used, under any circumstances, to repress violent conduct in a demonstration.”
In the report, the UN also explains emblematic cases that illustrate the complex activities of the legal system during the National Strike. Some of those were: The Attorney General’s Office, for example, had made use of the private lives of the women as material to be investigated. In Bucaramanga, the Police and the prosecutors had intimidated human rights defenders, basing it on the stigmatizations of several social organizations. In cities like Medellín and Bogotá, the former Esmad—now called Unit for Dialog and Maintenance of Order–, attacked demonstrators and caused serious injuries; in other cases, the rapporteurs saw proof of the criminalization of protest.
Besides exposing the emblematic cases of arbitrary arrests, the report mentions how the members of Colombian society who demonstrated were subjected to the criminalization of the protest. The UN pointed out that, according to International Humanitarian Law (DIH), “governments not only have the negative obligation to abstain from inappropriate interference in the rights to meet and associate together peacefully, but they also have the positive obligation to facilitate and protect those rights in conformity with international human rights regulations.”
Right now, President Gustavo Petro made the decision to designate seven “spokesmen for peace” to accompany the mission to solve social conflicts in this country, to promote reconciliation and peaceful coexistence in the framework of his project of “total peace”. The “spokesmen for peace” are members of social and/or humanitarian organizations that are being investigated and that have not been convicted in the trials related to the National Strike, and who have been recognized for their leadership. Among the seven “spokesmen” are: Adriana Esperanza Bermeo Súa, Santiago Márquez Charris, and Laura Camila Ramírez Enciso. Five of them are in jail and two are under house arrest.
“Without trying to pass judgment on the information we have seen, we would like to express our deep concern about the previously described allegations. We are particularly disturbed by the apparent wrongful use of criminal law and charging power of the government to prosecute people who exercise their right to peaceful meetings, their rights of association, and their right to free expression. In the same manner we are worried about the alleged repression and stigmatization of human rights defense reporters and attorneys who defend people who have been prosecuted in the framework of these proceedings,” said the rapporteurs.
Also, the report makes an important and worrisome point about the profound discrimination that exists against women, with stereotypes about their allegedly “appropriate” role in society that may have been perpetuated by the actions of the judicial authorities during the 2021 protests. “We remind you that it is the government’s obligation to guarantee to women their right to participate in the nongovernmental organizations and associations that they occupy in the public life and politics of the country,” states the report.
Finally, while the United Nations Organization, which stands up for human rights, waits for a response from the Colombian government to its observations, it expects that it will adopt all of the measures necessary to protect the rights and liberties of the people mentioned in the report, and that it will investigate, charge and try, and impose appropriate sanctions on any person found responsible for the violations cited. “We will be expressing our concerns publicly in the near future, and we believe that the reports received are sufficiently reliable to indicate that there exists a concern that justifies immediate attention,” states the tough report, and further, it finds that public opinion must be informed about the potential implications related to the situations that were described.