June 19, 2017

By W. T. Whitney Jr.

Colombian authorities on June 20 released prisoner David Ravelo. In anticipation Reinaldo Villalba, his lawyer, declared that, “Colombian justice committed a most serious injustice and error in sentencing David Ravelo Crespo to 18 years for a crime he did not commit.” Ravelo’s case was “one more of the state’s facades of justice with which it famously imprisons revolutionary leaders and leaders of people’s organizations and the Colombian left.” Presently, “thousands of other outstanding opposition leaders … are caught up in this web.”

Prior to being jailed in September 2010, Ravelo had led the people of Barrancabermeja, his native city, in defending against paramilitary attacks.  The member of the Central Committee of Colombia’s Communist Party founded and directed that city’s CREDHOS human rights organization. In 2009 the Catholic diocese there honored Ravelo with its San Pedro Claver prize.

Ravelo ran afoul of serious abuses of judicial and prosecutorial norms. Prosecutors rested their case on an accusation against Ravelo from former paramilitary leader Mario Jaimes, alias “El Panadero.” Jaimes is serving 40 years in prison for his role in organizing massacres in Barrancabermeja in 1998 and 1999. Ravelo had taken the lead in agitating for his arrest.

Colombian law provides that paramilitaries who tell about their crimes need not serve more than eight years in prison.  Testifying in that regard, Jaimes accused Ravelo of complicity in the murder of a Barracabermeja city official in 1992.

It turned out later that Jaimes bribed and pressured witnesses against Ravelo. It was discovered also that Ravelo’s prosecutor had served a prison sentence for having participated in the disappearance and presumed murder of a young man; Colombian law prohibits criminals from serving in the judiciary branch. Ravelo based unsuccessful appeals of his conviction and sentencing on these spectacular irregularities.   

According to lawyer Villalba, Ravelo’s release happened due to an order from a tribunal “for the enforcement of sentences.” That court was acting in accordance with a provision of Law 1820, which Colombia’s Congress passed in December 2016 as implementation of the recent peace agreement between FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government. The Law authorizes the release of prisoners who have served at least five years, both former combatants and “social leaders held because of their work as activists,”.  

Released prisoners must promise to appear before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a tribunal created under the peace agreement, but one that doesn’t yet exist.  Its job will be to determine pardon or punishment. According to Villalba, Ravelo will comply, but will maintain his innocence in the face of Jaimes’ additional accusation that he had links with the FARC. The lawyer indicated his client’s case will be presented to the Supreme Court of Justice in hopes that his conviction on that charge will be reversed.  

Villalba reported that Mario Jaimes and another “false witness,” unnamed, face trial in Bucaramanga for their false accusations against Ravelo. He predicted Ravelo will resume his interrupted political activities, but expressed concern for his safety in Barrancabermeja, where paramilitaries remain active.  Ravelo will be seeking reparations for damages to himself, his family, and social organizations he was involved with.

The Patriotic Union honored Ravelo at its Sixth National Congress which took place in Bogota on June 22. Beginning in the late 1980s, the Colombian state and paramilitaries waged war against the Patriotic Union; ongoing massacre took the lives of thousands of members seeking or holding political offices. Ravelo, a member, served on Barrancabermeja’s city council, and went to prison in 1993-1995 on false charges.

Struggle for Ravelo’s freedom benefited from international solidarity. Labor activists, parliamentarians, and lawyers in the U. K deserve special recognition. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been reviewing his case. Reinaldo Villalba is hoping that that “the inter-American system [eventually] recognizes that the case involved political persecution and an arbitrary criminal process. [It went] beyond the innocence of David Ravelo.”

He regards Ravelo as an “example for judicial authorities who, sooner than later, must concede liberties to social activists in struggle who have been arrested for organizing or participating in social protests. These are not a crime but a right.” 

It seems ultimately that the saga of Ravelo’s political struggles, persecution, and liberation is a reflection of divisions marking his country’s vexed history. The many there lack resources for decent lives while the privileged few maintain control through power resting on violence and – it must be said – support from the United States. But the news isn’t all bad.  To the extent that Ravelo’s valor, persistence, and reliance on principle extend throughout Colombia’s revolutionary left, resistance there has a long life.