Colombian justice vs. human rights


Just weeks ago, Colombian human rights activist Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango was making the rounds in Washington -- meeting with senior State Department officials, testifying before Congress -- and being feted in New York for his work on behalf of political prisoners and the steep personal price he has paid for his advocacy. Now he is facing seven years in prison.

Gonzalez, who had been providing inmates with educational and social services, was arrested in 2006 and charged with the standard smear against activists who are thorns in the government’s side: being a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a drug-trafficking terrorist group. The FARC, which has been waging its guerrilla war for 50 years, is so widely loathed that just the allegation of rebel allegiance is life-threatening. More than one human rights activist, although cleared by the courts, has been murdered by vigilantes.

Gonzalez was jailed for 15 months while awaiting trial, then a judge threw out the charges, calling them utterly baseless. The government, however, appealed his acquittal, and a district court overturned the lower court’s decision; it sentenced Gonzalez to prison. Days later, he lost his appeal of that ruling when Colombia’s Supreme Court refused to hear his case.

Although Gonzalez’s particular plight has become well known in human rights circles, there have been thousands like him -- union organizers and indigenous-rights advocates, farm and land reformers, lawyers who expose the links between elected officials and right-wing death squads, all subject to arbitrary incarceration and imprisonment on fabricated grounds.

The travesty of Gonzalez’s case gained worldwide attention when Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, publicized details: how one witness could neither name nor identify Gonzales; how another said prosecutors coerced his testimony. Furthermore, the defense was not permitted to cross- examine these witnesses, who never appeared in court. The State Department weighed in on Gonzalez’s behalf, as did the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. Although he was free while appealing to the Supreme Court, he may be imprisoned any day now.

Gonzalez’s last recourse may be the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which could declare his prosecution invalid under international law. But the commission should go further than insisting on a fair process for one activist and urge systemic reforms in Colombia’s judicial system. In its fight against the FARC, Colombia has prevailed by taking a no-holds-barred stance. But justice should not become a casualty of the country’s civil war.