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Colombia's Supreme Court in the Spotlight

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By Andrew Hudson
Senior Associate at Human Rights First

Colombia is high on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities at the moment: the U.S. has a pending free-trade agreement; Colombian President Uribe is considering a Constitutional amendment to run for a third term á la Bloomberg/Chavez; and many of Colombia's worst war criminals have recently been extradited to the US.

Colombia's Supreme Court may have a role to play in each of these controversies and many more: President Uribe is currently replacing a number of judges on the court; evidence continues to surface that Colombia's intelligence agency has been illegally spying on the Supreme Court; and the Court is spearheading delicate investigations of members of Colombian Congress for links to paramilitary death squads. Colombia's Supreme Court has thus been thrust into the Spotlight as never before

Meanwhile, a test case filed yesterday with the Colombian Supreme Court shows its important bread-and-butter work must continue. Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango, a student activist and member of the Colombian Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee, has filed an appeal with the Colombian Supreme Court seeking an extraordinary remedy (casación) to quash his malicious terrorism conviction. The case could mark a turning point in Colombia's efforts to end the criminalization of human rights defenders.
The appeal gives Colombia's Supreme Court a historic opportunity to overturn years of arbitrary detention and unjust persecution against Gonzalez. However, Gonzalez's case is just the tip of the iceberg and a strong decision by the Supreme Court would help dozens of other Colombian activists who are victims of trumped-up charges intended to persecute them. According to Gonzalez's legal team, this is the first time a human rights defender has sought this type of extraordinary remedy from the Colombian Supreme Court.

Gonzalez was detained in Bucaramanga for more than one year starting in 2006, and remained incarcerated while awaiting trial on charges of rebellion and of being in charge of an urban militia force linked to the FARC guerrilla group. At trial, a judge acquitted him of all charges, finding that they were baseless and should never have been initiated. Inexplicably, the acquittal was appealed, and in March 2009, after two years of liberty, the Superior Tribunal of Bucaramanga overturned the lower court's judgment and sentenced Gonzalez to seven more years in prison for the same false charges. The prosecution relied on two witnesses: one who was unable to physically identify or even name Gonzalez before he was detained, and the other who admitted to providing statements under duress from prosecutors.

The Colombian Supreme Court should use its current profile as a platform to send a strong message that it will not tolerate abuse of the judicial system to intimidate and silence human rights defenders. The Obama administration should also send the same message to the Colombian government: that human rights advocates strengthen Colombia's democracy and that the Colombian government must stop the baseless stigmatization of activists as terrorists.