Test Case for Inter-American Human Rights Commission to End Widespread Criminalization of Activism in Colombia
(New York December 9, 2009) A test case filed yesterday with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) could mark a turning point in efforts to end the criminalization of Colombian human rights defenders, according to Human Rights First, an international human rights organization.
Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango, a student activist and member of the Colombian Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee, has formally lodged a petition with the IACHR, stating that his human rights were violated given his arbitrary detention and the ongoing malicious terrorism proceedings against him. Gonzalez also requested urgent precautionary measures from the IACHR to avoid a return to arbitrary detention.
"This petition gives the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights a historic opportunity to overturn years of arbitrary detention and unjust persecution against Gonzalez," said Human Rights First's Andrew Hudson. "The Commission should send a strong message that it will not tolerate abuse of the Colombian judicial system to intimidate and silence human rights defenders. It should also adopt urgent measures to ensure that Gonzalez's fundamental rights are not further trampled while his case is pending"
The petition before the IACHR highlights the need for Colombia's Supreme Court to admit Gonzalez's appeal and quash the erroneous terrorism conviction against him. The case was filed on Gonzalez's behalf by Human Rights First and the International Human Rights Clinic of the George Washington University Law School.
The groups note that the precedential value of this case is enormous, and a strong decision by the Commission would help dozens of other Colombian activists who are victims of baseless criminal prosecutions. "Gonzalez's case is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout Colombia, human rights defenders are subject to trumped-up charges intended to persecute them" said Hudson.
Gonzalez was detained in Bucaramanga for more than one year starting in 2006. He remained incarcerated while awaiting trial on charges of rebellion and of being in charge of an urban militia force linked to the FARC guerrilla group. At trial, a judge acquitted him of all charges, finding that they were baseless and should never have been initiated. Inexplicably, the acquittal was appealed, and in March 2009, after two years of liberty, the Superior Tribunal of Bucaramanga overturned the lower court's judgment and sentenced Gonzalez to seven more years in prison for the same false charges. The prosecution relied on two witnesses: one who was unable to physically identify or even name Gonzalez before he was detained, and the other who admitted to providing statements under duress from prosecutors.
In June 2009, Gonzalez appealed to Colombia's Supreme Court arguing that his conviction was void for two reasons. First, it violated his right to defense by failing to inform him that a preliminary investigation against him was underway. Second, for error of reasoning by accepting contradictory and incoherent witness evidence from ex-combatants receiving re-integration benefits from the state. A decision from the Supreme Court about whether to accept the appeal is expected any day.
In October 2009, Human Rights First awarded Gonzalez its prestigious annual human rights award in recognition of his outstanding promotion of human rights.
A range of international entities have expressed concern about Gonzalez's prosecution, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and the United States Department of State.
According to Human Rights First, Gonzalez's case is emblematic of many others. In February 2009, the group released In the Dock and Under the Gun: Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, a comprehensive report that, for the first time, documented the widespread use of trumped-up charges to silence Colombian human rights activists.