Colombian Human Rights Defenders Targeted for Prosecution: The Case of Principe Gabriel Gonzalez

Principe Gabriel Gonzalez

Principe Gabriel Gonzalez has been persecuted for his work as a human rights activist with Colombia‘s Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee.

Principe Gabriel GonzalezOn August 18 of this year, Principe Gabriel Gonzalez, a human rights activist with the Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee (CSPP) in Colombia, was with his sister in Bolivar plaza in Pamplona, a city located in north east Colombia. According to the CSPP, Gonzalez and his sister were approached by two armed men in plain clothes who said they were from the SIJIN – the national police’s intelligence and investigation division. When they asked to see Gonzalez’s identification he told them he had left them at home and offered to fetch it. The men replied they knew who he was and where he lived.

As the two men unsuccessfully tried to make Gonzalez’s sister leave, an unmarked, white SUV pulled up, with two more armed plain clothed men inside. They told him to get in the car.  When he refused, fearing the men were from a paramilitary gang and he was about to be “disappeared”, one of the men kneed him twice in the stomach and handcuffed him.  Half an hour later, a police patrol car took Gonzalez and his sister to the police station.

Within hours, police had announced Gonzalez’s arrest to the media, reporting they had found “an abundance of documents detailing preparations for terrorist attacks” and declaring his arrest a blow against Colombia’s guerrilla insurgency.

Gonzalez returned to Colombia six months before to care for his terminally ill mother. He had been driven to exile by the latest twist in the nightmare he had been living since 2005 when, like hundreds of other human rights activists, he was targeted for malicious prosecution; accused of aiding leftist-guerrillas in their war against the Colombian state and charged with “rebellion.”  

Gonzalez has been involved in human rights work since he was a teenager. In 2002, he began working for CSPP, one of Colombia’s oldest human rights organizations. The CSPP primarily provides assistance to prisoners, especially victims of arbitrary detention and torture.

It can be life-threatening for a human rights defender like Gonzalez to be marked by the state as a guerrilla collaborator. Over the years, a number of CSPP activists have been killed, “disappeared”, threatened and attacked by far-right paramilitary groups.

Since the 80s these paramilitary organizations, in various guises, have waged a dirty war against Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla groups. Rather than engage the insurgents in direct combat, the war has focused on “collaborators”, a tag indiscriminately applied to leftist activists and politicians, unions, campesinos (peasant farmers) and human rights organizations. These groups have suffered massacres, assassinations, forced displacement, kidnappings and death threats at the hands of the paramilitaries. Collusion between the paramilitaries and the military, politicians, landowners and multinationals has been widely documented. The groups also control much of Colombia’s drug trade. Backed by such power and wealth, those responsible for attacks on human rights groups have enjoyed virtual judicial impunity.

The departments of Santander and North Santander, where Gonzalez worked, are paramilitary hotbeds. Gonzalez first received a death threat in 1999 for his work with a local “council of community action” in Pamplona. The threats increased when he joined the CSPP and culminated in 2005 when he was named on a list of “legitimate military targets” by the paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – the AUC. The document said he would be killed if he did not leave the area immediately. Gonzalez fled to Bogota.

However, when Gonzalez returned to Pamplona at the end of 2005 it was not the AUC who tracked him down, but the Pamplona Prosecutors Office. He was arrested and detained, then moved to Modelo prison in Bucaramanga, where he remained for 15 months.

On April 26th, after four months in prison, he was formally charged with aggravated rebellion. Prosecutors alleged he headed an “urban militia force”, linked to Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the FARC. They also claimed he was a member of a FARC prisoner “urban network of assistance” and he provided medical supplies to FARC guerrillas. He was denied bail after the prosecutor argued if he were let go he would be free to plan crimes.

The prosecution’s case consisted of an intelligence file and two witnesses, both alleged FARC deserters cooperating with the authorities under the terms of a new legal process offering legal, economic, protective, health, and educational benefits to demobilized members of armed groups.

The main witness, Wilman Patiño, told the authorities of the “Pamplona Militia,” which he claimed was led by a man called Alirio Cordoba. Although Patiño had said he could not describe the militia leader, he had no hesitation in picking Gonzalez out of a line-up and identifying him as Cordoba.  

Patiño’s evidence was plagued by inconsistencies, contradictions and implausible events. Even though he changed the dates and places of his meetings with Cordoba several times, his evidence still did not match the movements of Gonzalez. By the time the trial came round, Patiño could not be tracked down and the defense was denied the opportunity to question his testimony.

Lilia Lozano, the only other witness, claimed she knew of a Príncipe or a Gabriel who was in charge of obtaining medical and legal services for the FARC. Lozano had previously given evidence in four other “rebellion” trials, all ending in acquittal. In January 2005, she told the CSPP that members of the police and the Attorney-General’s Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) in Bucaramanga pressured her to provide evidence against Gonzalez. The CTI were also authors of the intelligence file used against Gonzalez.

The case finally came before a judge on March 30, 2007. Judge Alberto Pabon Ordóñez was scathing of the charges brought against Gonzalez. He ruled Patiño’s evidence was “mere speculation which aimed to distort”. He also dismissed Lozano’s vague testimony and the intelligence dossier, which he said was no more than a summary of witness statements and did not provide any evidence that Gonzalez was Alirio Cordoba. The judge even doubted the existence of the Pamplona Militia force that Gonzalez was supposed to have led, citing a complete lack of corroborating evidence such as media or intelligence reports. Less than a week after the trial began, Gonzalez was free.

However, his legal battle was not over. Two years later prosecutors appealed to a higher court, which reversed the decision to quash the case and handed Gonzalez a seven-year prison sentence. His legal team appealed for a review of the case by Colombia’s Supreme Court, in what they hoped would be a landmark ruling against malicious prosecutions of human rights activists. In December 2010, with Gonzalez living in exile abroad, the court declined to hear the case and the warrant for his arrest was activated.

Between the dock and the gun

The judge who originally reviewed the case against Gonzalez said he dismissed the demobilized guerrilla’s testimony because of “fear that his evidence was being used to direct the judicial system against those who are fighting for social or democratic causes or claiming their rights.” He also described the case as “symptomatic” in that “the prosecutor tries to make out as an element of rebellion the fact that NGOs are providing valuable services to prisoners, which often make up for the absence of state assistance.”  

It is an assessment shared by NGO Human Rights First (HRF), which has campaigned for Gonzalez since his detention, and has investigated in depth the plight of human rights activists caught between the violence of paramilitary death squads and the prosecutions of the state.

HRF’s Quinn O’Keefe told Upside Down World: “In Gabriel’s case and, unfortunately, there are many more like his, he was prosecuted on baseless charges as a way to impede his human rights work.  Regional prosecutors have near impunity to bring malicious charges against human rights defenders who challenge the status quo.”

In 2009, HRF released a report, “ Baseless Prosecutions of human rights defenders”, which investigated 32 cases to document how “those who peacefully promote human rights are singled out for particular intimidation through baseless investigations and prosecutions. Unfounded charges are often widely publicized, undermining the credibility of defenders and marking them as targets for physical attack.”

According to the report, state prosecutions of human rights workers tend to follow a pattern. First, a regional prosecutor initiates a secret preliminary investigation, which often uses “irrelevant and inflammatory” intelligence reports from the army, police or other state security agencies. The prosecutor then obtains “false, incoherent or contradictory” witness testimony, usually from ex-combatants collaborating with the state to get demobilization benefits. The activist is then arrested, detained and, sometimes much later, charged with rebellion for alleged links to guerrillas or terrorists. Most cases are eventually thrown out after a review by a senior prosecutor or judge but to get to this point can take months or even years of legal wrangling.

The charge of rebellion is defined in Colombian law as “attempt to destroy the national government or abolish or amend the constitutional regime by employing arms.” HRF states there was no evidence of violence or use of arms in a single one of the cases reviewed in the investigation. Instead, they claim, the prosecution “relies on innuendo and the assertion that the defender is covertly involved with the FARC.”

While few of the cases result in convictions, the process has a devastating effect on those prosecuted. Aside from enduring weeks, months or even years of arbitrary detention and the arduous legal process, those accused leave the process as marked men having been smeared with the tag of guerrilla collaborator. The end of legal persecution often means the beginning of paramilitary threats, violence and for some, murder.

According to Quinn O’Keefe: “Even if the prosecution cannot secure a conviction, charging a human rights defender with extremism serves as an intimidation tactic since these charges alone undermine the defender’s credibility in the community and places them at risk for physical attack.”

The report also provides evidence that the persecution of human rights defenders involves deliberate distortion and widespread collusion between the judicial system and security forces. Among that evidence is the case of “Operation Dragon”, a covert intelligence gathering exercise, smear campaign and allegedly a plot to assassinate human rights defenders, union leaders, and members of the political opposition in Colombia. The operation allegedly saw those involved – the police, the military, public prosecutors and the Department of Administrative Security – the DAS – fabricate information about human rights defenders in intelligence reports in order to detain them, initiate specious criminal charges, or put their lives at risk.

The smearing of human rights activists as guerrilla collaborators escalated sharply during the 2002-2010 presidency of Alvaro Uribe. Luis Jairo Ramirez, the Executive Director at the Permanent Committee for Human Rights (CPDH), an NGO which has worked with victims of Colombia’s conflict since 1979 is quoted in “Baseless Prosecutions” saying: “The stigmatization against human rights defenders originates fundamentally from the government, headed by President Uribe, his presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria, and other sectors of the extreme right. They have been generating a climate of polarization, hostility and false evidence, the consequences of which are detentions of human rights defenders.”

Throughout his presidency, Uribe frequently labeled human rights activists as guerrillas, terrorists and criminals. He even went as far as accusing Amnesty International of “blindness,” “fanaticism,” and “dogmatism” and calling Human Rights Watch Americas (HRW) Director Jose Miguel Vivanco a “supporter” and an “accomplice” of the FARC.
In 2009, HRW wrote to US President Obama urging him to address the situation. The letter states: “accusations of this sort coming from the president can put the person against whom they are directed at risk. More broadly, such statements create an environment of intimidation that can chill public debate and criticism of the government’s policies.”

The election of Juan Manuel Santos to the presidency in 2010 marked a significant change in the relationship between the government and human rights organizations. Santos’ government has promoted human rights initiatives, even passing legislation that would return land to displaced persons and provide financial compensation to victims of abuses by state agents. It has also issued public statements of support for human rights defenders and called for a politically independent judiciary and an end to impunity.

Yet Colombia remains a dangerous place for human rights defenders. Unionists, community leaders and activists continue to be threatened and killed and the government’s rhetoric has yet to bring many to justice for the attacks – the impunity rate of political assassinations has actually risen and one 2011 study claims it now stands at 99%. Furthermore, according to The Alliance for Global Justice, there are currently approximately 7,500 political prisoners in Colombia, the overwhelming majority with no record of violence.

Among them is Principe Gabriel Gonzalez, whose malicious prosecution the judicial system continues to refuse to review. HRF’s Quinn O’Keefe said: “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.”

Gonzalez is currently in Pamplona prison. Sources close to the case suggest he will soon be moved to a maximum security prison, where he runs the risk of being attacked or murdered by inmates from paramilitary groups. Now that he has exhausted all of his appeals, Gonzalez has few options. His supporters are calling for Santos to back his words with action and issue a presidential pardon.

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See