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Justice denied: Human rights defender facing 18 years in prison

You don’t really know what to expect when you’re about to meet a man who has spent four years in prison for aggravated homicide. Particularly an internationally recognised human rights defender, whose case has been widely discredited.

David Rabelo Colombian human rights defender, David Rabelo was sentenced to 18 years in prison in September 2013. He had already spent three years in prison awaiting his judgement.

When we entered the grey prison in the outskirts of Bogota, we were deeply moved by the warmth with which we were received. David was in remarkable good cheer and greeted us with a welcoming smile, explaining:

  • ‘My morale is still high as truth is on my side, outside this prison I was a human rights defender and despite the walls and barbed wire I continue to defend human rights inside the prison’.

Within the prison David has organised a human rights committee for prisoners, remarkable as the he shares his jail with ex-paramilitaries who were on the whole opposed to human rights defenders.

A dangerous business

Protecting human rights in Colombia is a dangerous business. David Rabelo’s case is deeply connected to the violent targeting of human rights defenders in Colombia.

David is a founding member of Christian Aid partner CREDHOS, a human rights organisation. He was the organisation’s Secretary General at the time of his detention.

Mr Rabelo has spent 30 years defending human rights in Colombia, investigating forced disappearances, extra-judicial executions and forced displacements. Prior to his arrest he had received numerous death threats.

In 2013, 70 human rights defenders were killed for the work they do, alarmingly these figures are twice as high as figures from 2010.

Violence and threats are so extreme that the state, following pressure from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other concerned international bodies, was forced to establish a National Protection Unit to provide security measures such as bullet proofs vests and armoured cars to human rights defenders.

Over 50 years of violent internal armed conflict have characterised Colombia, with the state, supported by the military and in collaboration with the paramilitaries fighting guerrillas without resolution.

Around 12 percent of the population (5.7 million people) have been displaced, and the conflict has claimed at least 220,000 lives since 1958, with four of every five deaths civilian.

Human rights defenders such as David challenge very strong vested interests and power dynamics - often standing up to paramilitaries who are willing to go as far as it takes to protect their interests.

Mr Rabelo’s lawyers are currently awaiting confirmation that his appeal can be heard in the Supreme Court. David is acutely aware of the challenges he faces:

  • I got a triple death sentence: physical, political and legal. Those of us who defend human rights are being pursued and put into prison with false evidence.’

A failure of justice

David’s lawyers, supported by an independent assessment by British lawyers, have repeatedly highlighted the lack of due process and fair trial in his case.

The prosecutor in the case, William Pacheco, had been investigated for his involvement in the forced disappearance of a youth when he was a police lieutenant. He was removed from his post and subsequently sentenced to one year in prison as a result of his alleged involvement in the crime.

Since Colombian law prevents anyone found guilty of committing such a serious offence from holding the post of prosecutor, Pacheco was legally ineligible to prosecute the case against David Rabelo.

Additionally the case against David relied heavily on the statements of two released paramilitaries in exchange for benefits. In addition a witness in the case reported an attempt to bribe them; and other witnesses for the prosecution are said to have constantly contradicted themselves and their testimonies have reportedly been false.

Mr Ravelo’s lawyers argue that these irregularities have undermined the defence and question the legitimacy of the sentence against him. They are currently awaiting confirmation that his appeal can be heard in the Supreme Court.

The anomalies in David Rabelo’s case are not the only cause for concern in this case. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay expressed concern about the practice of prosecutions directed against human rights defenders that are based on ‘unreliable witness testimonies from demobilised individuals’.

The Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, sent a communiqué to the Colombian Government expressing concern that the ‘criminalisation of Rabelo occurs in the context of increasing prosecutions against human rights defenders in Colombia’.

After four years in prison David remains convinced that the truth is on his side:

  • I continue to fight for my rights, the truth will be known and I will be free. Thanks to international support my situation is known all over the world’

What action Ireland can take

In the current Dáil session Irish politicians will be asked to ratify a European Parliament Free Trade Agreement with Colombia and Peru, a necessary step by European regional parliaments before it can become legally enforceable.

There has been some action by the Colombian state to improve the situation of human rights and the current peace negotiations with the guerrilla groups offer undoubted hope for the future.

President Santos, on taking up office, expressed commitments to human rights and has passed a law to restore land to victims. However these policy commitments have not yet translated into practice and change for the poor of Colombia.

Civil society organisations in Colombia are clear - not enough has been done and crucially more should be done before other states increase trade links.

Large farmers protests in 2013 were linked to recent reforms related to the free-trade agreements already signed by Colombia; these reforms have been at the expense of the interests of peasant farmers, who make up 34 per cent of Colombia’s population and in favour of large-scale economic interests.

While it won’t stop the European process, given the gravity of human rights and humanitarian concerns in Colombia the Irish government should consider not ratifying this treaty as a principled position, not least because of our membership of the UN Human Rights Council. 

At a very minimum the Dáil should fully debate any trade links with Colombia. International embassies can also add pressure to the need to protect human rights defenders by visiting David Rabelo in prison and calling for due process to his appeal to the Supreme Court.


About the author

Karol Balfe

Karol Balfe is Christian Aid Ireland's advisor on governance, peace building and human rights.

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