On Monday, July 10, Human Rights groups staged demonstrations at U.S. Embassies around the world to demand freedom for Simon Trinidad, a FARC-EP leader who has been held in a maximum security U.S. prison since his extradition in 2004, as well as amnesty for the thousands of political prisoners being unlawfully held within Colombia.
Two main groups, the Alliance for Global Justice based out of Tucson, Arizona and the People’s Human Rights Observatory based out of Oaxaca, Mexico, spearheaded the demonstrations with support from numerous human rights groups from Colombia. They coordinated simultaneous actions at U.S. embassies in Switzerland, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, and the United States, all supporting the common message that the government’s failure to release political prisoners obstructs the peace process.
The FARC-EP completed disarmament on June 27 and, in doing so, fulfilled their main obligation of the peace accords ratified in Havana this past November. The Colombian government still has not met their part of the agreement. While by now the government should have granted amnesty to the 2,568 political prisoners that they are holding captive, they have thus far only granted amnesty to 832.
In response, prisoners in nineteen different jails throughout the country began a hunger strike on June 26 to pressure the government to release the remainder of the prisoners. After sixteen days, 1,486 prisoners have joined the strike, many of whom have sewn their lips shut to demonstrate their commitment.
Chucho Nariño, an ex-guerrilla and one of the main leaders of the strike, reported that “after 15 days of hunger strike, the government has not responded to any of the demands for the release of prisoners that were established in the peace accords.”
The demonstrations this past Monday happened in solidarity with the hunger strike, as well as called attention to the government's lack of action on other promises mandated in the accords. In addition to the government’s failure to grant amnesty to political prisoners, it has been slow to provide basic services to transitional zones set up for the FARC-EP, many of which still lack health care, running water, educational resources, and access to electricity and internet.
The Mechanism for Monitoring and Verification, an international group organized under the United Nations to monitor complicity on both sides of the agreement, confirmed that, while the FARC-EP have met all of their stipulations on time, the government has only just provided the FARC-EP with materials for building houses in the transition zones.
A special peace court, the Special Jurisdiction for the Peace (JEP), has been set up to review the cases of the political prisoners that are eligible for release under amnesty Law 1820, though the court has thus far released only 24.4 percent of the 3,406 eligible prisoners. This stagnancy is largely the work of conservative prosecutors, who have slowed down the process by returning the cases to be reviewed within the traditional Colombian court system and, in doing so, weakened the JEP as a mechanism to facilitate justice.
The actions of these prosecutors have gone unpunished because only the government is overseeing this process. Instead of having a tripartite commission composed of the United Nations, the Colombian government, and the FARC-EP (as is the standard in the rest of the accords), these courts are monitored by magistrates appointed by the government, thus allowing for the unchecked abuse of state power.
“This is the form of justice from the enemy,” explains Carlos Leones Garcias, a FARC-EP member who has been imprisoned for the past sixteen years. “We are victims of the state. I’m not saying this as a political position, but as our position according to the law.”
This tedious process of release threatens not only the rights of the prisoners but the political power of the FARC-EP as it works to form a legally-sanctioned political party. “How can we form a party when so many are missing?” asks Jesus Santrich, a central commander of the FARC-EP.
Protesters on Monday drew attention to these failings of the peace process and delivered a public letter to the embassies calling for liberty for the political prisoners: "There is no reason to keep thousands of political prisoners imprisoned,” it reads, “especially those who are covered by the Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC, who, in compliance with the agreement and Law 1820, were to be released on December 31, 2016." Addressed to the Colombian State and the Pope, the letter was signed by 455 different human rights groups and social leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel.
Demonstrators put forth another letter containing four central demands: the immediate release of Simon Trinidad and Anayibe Rojas Valderrama; immediate amnesty for all political prisoners in Colombia; the end of extraditions from Colombia to the United States; and the end of the U.S. government’s influence in the Colombian penitentiary system.
After the actions had subsided, that same evening Santos released a presidential decree publicly granting amnesty to 3,600 FARC members who are spread among the 26 transitional zones nationwide. While seemingly a victory, in reality, the amnesty only applies to those ex-guerrillas who are already in transitional zones and thus ignores the problem of the 3,406 FARC members still behind bars.
Inside the prisons, the government is not making the strike any easier. According to Nariño, “Prisoners don’t receive medical attention until they pass out.” Many of the prisoners have pre-existing medical conditions that they are being refused attention for, like hypertension, gastro intestinal problems, and bad surgeries.
Despite these challenges and in the face of a noncooperative government, the prisoner’s resolve remains unwavering. Octavio Rolando Acevedo, an ex-political prisoner, has joined the hunger strike in solidarity with those still imprisoned: “We are totally committed to this action, and are ready for the consequences, no matter what they are.”
“Our greatest fear is that we will be removing are dead comrades from prisons,” added Santrich, “But the strike will go beyond what is on paper, this is about taking action. The accords are about actions.”