RELEASE HUBER BALLESTEROS! – and all Colombian political prisoners

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JUST as preparations were being made for the launch of a campaign to call for the release of Huber Ballesteros and the other several thousand political prisoners held in Colombia’s prisons, the Colombian authorities carried out another arrest of a peasant farmer leader, said Justice for Colombia campaigners on Monday.

Wilmer Madroñero, a peasant farmer leader in the southern Department of Putumayo who has been involved in organising past Justice for Colombia delegations, was arrested on 23 October 2013 and two days later was transferred to Mocoa Prison.

Both the former Shadow Justice Minister, Rob Flello MP, and the Secretary General of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, have met Wilmer to hear about his trade union work.

He is the leader of the local ASCAP organisation which is affiliated to the agricultural workers’ union FENSUAGRO.

Wilmer and several other local activists were previously arrested in May of this year before being released with no charges being brought.

However, the clear attempt by the Colombian authorities to use the courts and the prisons to disrupt the work of the organisation has continued with this latest arrest.

Eighteen members of ASCAP have been arrested in the past before being released after the evidence against them was thrown out of court.

There are currently 60 members of FENSUAGRO however still locked away as political prisoners. In 2008 the founding member of the ASCAP was killed by paramilitaries.

With the recent arrest and imprisonment of Huber Ballesteros as the spark, a coalition of Colombian organisations joined together with Justice for Colombia to launch a campaign last Friday to call for the release of Colombia’s political prisoners and particularly Huber Ballesteros.

Huber Ballesteros is an executive committee member of the Colombian TUC, Vicepresident of Colombia’s agricultural workers union, and National Organiser of the Patriotic March opposition movement.

The event was held in Bogotá and included a video message from Huber from his prison cell in which he assured to all those present that in spite of their detention, the political prisoners were continuing the struggle for social justice in Colombia.

The Director of the Human Rights Department of Fensuagro, Aidee Moreno, reminded participants that Fensuagro has 60 members currently imprisoned just as a result of their trade union activity.

Justice for Colombia played an important role in organising the event and sent a compilation of video messages in support of the campaign from MPs, MLAs, and British trade union leaders.

In 2005, a system was put in place to guarantee that trade union and other social activists who are under threat receive protection measures from the state.

Up until two years ago, the protection provided was administered by the Presidential intelligence service, DAS, which was later exposed as having deep entrenched links with the same paramilitaries who were threatening the lives of the activists.

Bodyguards provided by DAS used their access to the trade union movement to compile lists of names which were then handed over to the paramilitary death squads.

On other occasions the bodyguards would not show up for work on the same day as a killing took place.

The intelligence agency was dissolved in 2011 after the weight of the revelations of corruption became too great.

The protection services were handed over to a newly created agency called the National Protection Unit (UNP).

But Colombia’s trade union federation, CUT, denounced on 22 October 2013, that the UNP is failing to provide the necessary protection to trade unionists and community activists.

Eleven trade unionists were killed in the first six months of the year.

The Atlantic regional sector of the CUT as well as several journalists have complained that the UNP is using re-evaluations to reduce the level of protection measures provided to individuals leaving them dangerously exposed.

One such case is that of Ludys Pedraza, lawyer for families displaced from their land after paramilitary massacres in the regions of La Guajira and Cesar.

Ludys Pedraza has been able to expose that the multinational coal mining companies Drummond and Glencore bought land from the paramilitaries and as a result she has received numerous death threats.

After a recent re-evaluation her bullet proof car was taken away.

The reduction in Ludys Edraza’s protection measures is symptomatic of what is taking place across the country.

• Meanwhile global union federation Public Services International (PSI) has said that violence against trade union leadership continues in Guatemala.

The latest PSI Guatemala update says: On October 11, Juan Jose Ortiz, SNTSG member and Financial Secretary of the Health Centre of Barberena Santa Rosa, was kidnapped on his way to the city centre.

For more than 24 hours he was held captive, threatened and tortured.

On 12 October, he was bundled into a car for a short drive, his eyes were then uncovered and he was left in the centre of Barberena.

Ortiz does not remember much of what happened; he was apparently drugged and received cigarette burns on his eyelids and eyebrows.

He fears for his life and that of his family.

PSI said: ‘We urge the Government of the Republic of Guatemala to investigate this new fact, punish the culprits and put an end to the intimidation of trade union leadership.

‘PSI calls on all its affiliates to write in English or Spanish to the President of Guatemala to express deep concern and call for immediate action.’

The attacks reported by SNTSG include:

On 2 October 2013 at 15:00, Melvy Lizeth Camey Rojas, the Secretary of SNTSG Health Centre of Chiquimulilla in the Department of Santa Rosa was in fear of her life for the second time, when armed men with nine-millimetre pistols on a motorcycle came looking for her at her workplace, likely with the intention to kill.

According to witnesses, these people shared a lot of similarities with the murderers who killed Labour Advisor Ricardo Morataya Lemus with several gunshots, and seriously injured Rojas in the same attack last July.

On 6 October at 8am, Genaro Cruz Telón of Chinebal in Izabal region, former secretary and member of the SNTSG, was seriously wounded in a brutal attack. Jorge Benjamin Cuc Caal from Chinebal has been charged. Cruz is in a coma due to his injuries.

On 6 October, the General Secretary of the Children’s Hospital and Rehabilitation, Mauricia Garcia Ruiz received a death threat, and on 7 October the Organising Secretary of the Executive Committee of the SNTSG, Dora Regina Ruano received death threats against herself and her children, via telephone.

These follow on the cases of 58 trade unionists murdered in recent years, and in particular the murders in March 2013 of Carlos Hernandez and Santa Alvarado of SNTSG (National Health Workers’ Union of Guatemala) and Kyra Zulueta Enríquez Mena (Union of the Municipality of Nueva Concepción).