Liliany Obando: Political Prisoner in Colombia

When the Colombian state arrested her on August 8, 2008, sociologist and documentary film maker Liliany Obando, mother of two, was serving as human rights director and fund raiser for Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural workers’ union. A week earlier, she had issued a report documenting 1500 union members murdered or disappeared since 1976.

When the Colombian state arrested her on August 8, 2008, sociologist and documentary film maker Liliany Obando, mother of two, was serving as human rights director and fund raiser for Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural workers’ union. A week earlier, she had issued a report documenting 1500 union members murdered or disappeared since 1976.
Unions and human rights groups in Europe, Canada, Australia, and the United States are supporting Obando. She’s gained emblematic status among 7500 political prisoners in Colombian jails. Many have never been tried, or, like Obando, are subjected to unjustifiably slow judicial processes.
Two recent developments in her situation are of likely interest to those following her case and to Colombia watchers generally. A judicial hearing was held on January 20.
The recent hearing followed others interspersed amongst two brief trial sessions, one in August, 2009, a year after her arrest, and another a year later. Testimony from a police functionary reinforced earlier Defense Ministry testimony that called into question the veracity of alleged evidence used against her.
The Colombian military allegedly took possession of the files from computers seized on March 1, 2008 when a FARC guerrilla encampment was attacked in Ecuador. They belonged to top FARC leader Raul Reyes who was killed in the U.S. assisted raid. Computer emails studied afterwards allegedly demonstrate collaboration between Obando and Reyes. That’s the basis for charges against her of rebellion and complicity with terrorism.
The court judging Obando reportedly is waiting for testimony from Canadian unionists that they were donating to Fensuagro rather than supporting guerrilla insurgents.
The judge in Obando’s case has now heard testimony suggesting officials had ample opportunity to alter files to present a picture of terrorist ties. Coincident with her arrest, 11 other leftist political figures and journalists were similarly fingered, but she was the only one jailed.
Her story highlights the phenomenon of prisons and incarcerations as a link in Colombia’s chain of repression and war against the poor. In addition to political prisoners, victims include four million Colombians displaced from their land, 50 percent of rural Colombians living in poverty, and tens of thousands of unionists, indigenous peoples, students, and leftists killed or disappeared.
After her arrest, Liliany Obando described herself as a “communist political prisoner, prisoner of conscience, and survivor of genocide against the Patriotic Union.” She tells something of who she is in an interview she gave in late January, which appears below
Interview with Colombian Political Prisoner Liliany Obando
A transcript and audio version of an interview with the Fensuagro unionist first appeared on The Spanish version of the complete interview is also available at”hay-siete-mil-quinientos-presos-políticos-de-los-que-no-se-habla-nunca – It appeared there on January 28, 201l. W. T. Whitney Jr. translated.
What are they accusing you of, Liliany Obando?
What’s happening to thousands of us, men and women, is that we are in opposition to a State and some governments we regard as unjust. They accuse us of “rebellion.” And furthermore, to make penalties more severe, Colombian justice for some years has resorted to handing down penalties for any alleged connection with terrorist activities whatsoever. In my case, I am accused of  “rebellion” and “managing resources related to terrorist activities.”
The process I am involved with has its origins in Operation Phoenix. Phoenix is the operation in which the Colombian Army, together apparently with foreign military forces, intruded illegally into the territory of another country, Ecuador, and the process turns on the supposed acquisition of illegally acquired computer files from [a destroyed FARC] campsite, … Without an order, with no authorization from a competent authority in the other country, so – called “proofs” become null and void. But more, there’s been after- the – fact manipulation of the same supposed evidence.
Frame up of human rights defenders
They have tried to put a smoke screen around the “para-politics” scandal (paramilitaries working with politicians). For that, they needed to create something designated as “FARC – politics.”

When one works for truth, for peace, for justice, then one has to insist that all this be clarified. Let there be truth and clarity about what happened there. That’s where all this process of “FARC- Politics” came from. It’s enabled them to put a lot of people in the public pillory. And making use of that supposed “evidence,” they’re hoping to pass judgment on many more.

We who are taking on serious work in defense of human rights are persecuted. My work has to do with bringing human rights tools and legal material to peasant communities …I carry out work in the communities directed at popular education and shaping of human rights. That’s what disturbs governments, all of them: the fact there are people out there defending the human rights of the most vulnerable populations of Colombia.
I could be dead at this moment. … Any of us who defend human rights in Colombia, trade unionists, for example, take on high- risk work, … receiving threatening calls, being on black lists and in intelligence reports.
Rights of mothers who are political prisoners
They’ve found no legal basis for denying me, as they do, detention at home….To be in a jail in my capacity as a sociologist has allowed me to do field work on the penitentiary and imprisonment situation. It’s chaotic. There’s no policy thinking about rehabilitation… In the case of women, prison policies give no consideration to the condition of gender.
That’s seen in the situation with children. They allow our small children less than 12 years old to visit us once a month. This creates in impossible situation. Some boys and girls live together with us on the inside, and it’s very difficult. There are children that have a different level of psychosocial development [and are] subjected to situations of abuse, shouts, situations that a small child must not be living through.
In prisons where there are mothers with children, there are no adequate infirmaries…There is the looming threat that children are going to be taken off to “family welfare” [thereby being removed from their mothers.] Also in some women’s prisons there exist infant and toddler nurseries, but they are not attended by suitable personnel… There have been attempts to violate some of these children in the nursery, or abuse them physically.
Personally I have suffered more than enough persecution from INPEC personnel. (National Penitentiary and Prison Institute) Here in prison, I have tried to keep on with my work as a human rights defender.
We see a multitude of human rights offenses and I have taken on protests along these lines, and this clearly has led to animosity against me on the part of custodial personnel. Many situations working against all the comrades, degrading treatment, humiliations, and resort to forbidden punishments, are part of our daily lives. [There are] situations of torture and depredations against even the minimal conditions of out lives.
Political prisoners in general
Prison conditions are rigorous for everybody, but for us political prisoners, they are even more difficult. We are considered “internal enemies.” For example, we are in a high security pavilion, isolated, restricted, and living under severe conditions. On the other hand, there are some pavilions with privileges, like those for “para-political” or white collar prisoners.
What happens to political convictions?
They locked up my body, but my commitment remains firm: They aren’t going to break me by putting me behind bars. On the contrary, all the injustices we see against political prisoners confirm for us the justice of struggle for a different country. Nevertheless I have to say that the state tries to bend and to break the moral of political prisoners in every possible way. In fact we denounce the “Law of Justice and Peace” and all these immoral inducements to lie, to hand over, to finger others also committed to social struggle…Appealing to national and international laws, we demand that they respect us and respect our classification as political prisoners…When they mix us in with paramilitaries, they put our security at risk and that of people visiting us
7500 political prisoners: what do the media say?
I think that communications media ought to carry out the function of informing and not of misinforming….They ought also to give a passing glance to what’s happening in the prisons, with their thousands and thousands of political prisoners …many of them innocent. They’re in prison for having voiced criticism of the State.
Imprisonment up during January, 2011
We are persecuted and judged. Strength is needed, and morale must be high. One has to keep going forward, for the sake of a new Colombia, distinct, democratic, and encompassing the social justice we need. No matter where we are called from, the struggle continues. We inside prison think our protests must continue, even from behind bars. We think people in situations of persecution must not be abandoned to fear… As a political opposition, we know these situations are part of our struggle. I would call upon social organizations not to abandon their members when they land in prison, when they come upon a difficult situation. That’s because it helps the overall struggle, if social activists continue to resist from wherever they find themselves.
International campaign for your liberation
There’s been a campaign for my release, and I am clear that this campaign is not a campaign for an individual but we have made it into an extensive campaign for all the political prisoners in Colombia. There are many social organizations from the most diverse regions that have backed us. Many human rights organizations, unions, and personalities have converged.
What about resistance among peasants, indigenous, and Afro-Colombians?
A fraternal embrace! All my solidarity goes to those women and men fighting for a life of dignity … Oh, that they continue on, in spite of difficulties involved with social struggle in Colombia, because we deserve a peaceful and more just country.
The computer “evidence” is invalid
We tell them that that from the point of view of international and national law, the “evidence” is null and void. Nevertheless, as we have seen in my process, they are moving ahead. That’s been my struggle in all of this: to demonstrate the illegality and invalidation of these “proofs,” because it’s not only Liliany Obando who is in prison today, but they are presuming to apply the same “proofs” to many more people.
And at that point this would necessarily become a collective struggle.