For Immediate Release: September 7, 2011
Washington, D.C. — Human Rights First is urging Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to issue an immediate presidential pardon for wrongfully-convicted human rights defender Principe Gabriel González. The organization noted that the pardon would distance Santos’ administration from the human rights abuses that occurred under his predecessor, including the wrongful prosecution of González, who is currently detained in Colombia.
González was a prominent student activist and, as a Regional Coordinator for the Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee, he worked to expose the ill treatment of Colombian political prisoners. His advocacy led to his own arrest in 2006, when he was detained on baseless charges meant to impede his human rights work. Over the past six years, González and those close to him have tirelessly worked to restore his name and clear him of charges that include rebellion and association with the FARC guerrilla group.
“This case is emblematic of the prior Colombian government’s attempts to silence human rights defenders by marking them as terrorist sympathizers. If President Santos is serious about his self-proclaimed commitment to improving human rights, he should start by protecting human rights defenders who are at risk for their work and providing justice for those who were targeted by the prior government. In González’s case, President Santos should issue a presidential pardon,” said Human Rights First’s Quinn O’Keefe.
Human Rights First notes that González’s conviction for being a terrorist sympathizer and the news coverage of his case make him particularly vulnerable to retaliatory violence by paramilitary groups. González is currently detained in a Pamplona jail, where he is largely protected from such attacks. If he is moved to a maximum security prison, a step sources close to the case say could happen as soon as tomorrow, González will face a greater danger from paramilitary detainees.
In 2007, a trial court judge acquitted González of all charges and even went so far as to admonish the prosecution for bringing the charges in the first place. Inexplicably, the prosecution appealed the court’s decision and, in March 2009, the Superior Tribunal of Bucaramanga overturned the acquittal. The Tribunal then sentenced González to seven years imprisonment. In December 2010, the Colombian Supreme Court declined to hear González’s appeal on jurisdictional claims. Last month, when González returned from exile to visit his ailing mother, he was arrested in Pamplona and immediately jailed. González has a petition pending with the Inter American Commission for Human Rights based on violation of his due process rights, but that case will likely take years to resolve.
“The prosecution elected to try González under Colombia’s old criminal procedure code that permitted the use of uncorroborated witness testimony. González’s lawyers could not even cross examine his accusers,” added O’Keefe. “Under Colombia’s new criminal procedure code, which was enacted in 2004, González’s case would never have proceeded to trial, let alone conviction. It’s time for President Santos to make clear that he will not perpetuate the injustices that preceded him.”
Colombia’s new criminal procedure code, supported by the U.S. government, was in part designed to protect defendants from prosecutorial abuse and uncorroborated charges. Prosecutors in González’s case relied solely on two witness statements that lacked credibility or corroboration. Their first witness was unable to identify González and the second admitted to testifying under duress.
Human Rights First celebrated González’s human rights work with its prestigious human rights award in 2009. Later that year, Human Rights First released In the Dock and Under the Gun: Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia, a comprehensive report that documents the widespread use of trumped-up charges to silence Colombian human rights activists.