His case travelled around the world. Victim of a set-up and accused of being a leader of the FARC guerillas, he was imprisoned for 2 years. He was innocent. Now free he talks about his experience, and about the persecution he suffered for criticizing the government over the internal conflict in Colombia.
You feel the strength of Miguel Angel’s spirit, but his eyes don’t hide the suffering he lived through.
A Colombian sociologist and university professor of 48 who used to teach in the National University of Colombia, he was arrested and imprisoned in May 2009.
He had been accused of being ‘Jaime Cienfuegos’, a member of the high command of FARC.
Beltrán’s case filled the front pages of newspapers around the world, as one of the worst cases of political persecution to have happened in Colombia. After spending 2 years in La Picota prison in Bogotá, charged with promoting insurrection and criminal conspiracy, he was eventually found innocent.
The evidence against him had been falsified. According to the government it was found in a computer belonging to the guerilla chief Raúl Reyes, who was killed on the Ecuadorian border during Operation Phoenix while Álvaro Uribe was president.
After the death of Reyes, the government used the information in his computer to accuse Colombians, whose names were presumably found there, arguing that they were involved in attacks on national security.
Among them were such well-known – and equally innocent – people as the ex-senator Piedad Córdoba, the members of Congress Wilson Borja, Carlos Lozano and others, including the presidents of Venezuela and Ecuador, Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa respectively.
Beltrán complained of being attacked and suffering human rights abuses dring his imprisonment. He says that the whole process was the result of persecution for having expressed opinions critical of the government on the Colombian conflict.
He spoke exclusively to The Prisma for over an hour during his visit to the UK, about all of this and the situation in Colombia after over 60 years of civil conflict.
What is your legal and personal situation now?
The judge found me innocent at the end of the trial. But the Colombian Attorney General opened a disciplinary process against me in order to disqualify me professionally. They are trying to cut me off from the University and bar me from any official position. It’s a way to keep me silent. I am worried that it could succeed because it is a politicized institution that has made other rulings intended to silence opposition to the government.
Besides that, when I was released from prison I received threats and a lot of harassment from the officially controlled media in Colombia. That forced me to leave the country in September, because I had no means to guarantee my safety. Now I am far away from my wife and family.
How was your meeting with your family and the university after your imprisonment?
It was very moving to feel the help and support of my family, my students and my colleagues. I went straight to the National University when I left the prison.
It was very encouraging to have all that support both in Colombia and internationally. The greatest benefit that kept me alive, despite the pain, was the international solidarity campaign, which was so big and has extended to other prisoners in Colombian jails.
How can you restore your respect when you have been shown around the world as a leader of FARC?
There is always a stigma, it leaves a mark, which is the purpose of persecution: to isolate you. It was very difficult for me personally. But I believe that through my trial, the attempt rebounded on them because my innocence was proved and the charge was shown to be a fabrication.
How did you feel when you were arrested in Mexico?
I was surprised. I had arrived at a meeting with an assistant, and my wife and a lawyer were with me. They waited outside and were not given any information.
They only found out from the media that I had been arrested as a terrorist.
How was your time in La Picota prison?
They put me with convicted criminals, including some charged with paramilitary activity, which put me in danger because I had written exposures of the links between the paramilitaries and the state. My status as a government employee was not recognized, otherwise I would not have been in a high security block. But in Colombia there are 10,000 people in the situation I lived through. Their rights to a proper defence are undermined, they are not allowed family visits, they are held in overcrowded conditions without medical attention and the food is very poor.
What kept you going?
So I decided to continue my investigation of Colombian prisons and of other players in the conflict like the guerillas and the paramilitaries.
Were there irregularities in your trial?
From the beginning the whole case against me was illegal. I was in Mexico working on a post-doctoral project at the Centre for Latin American Studies of UNAM (the National University of Mexico). I was not arrested, because no warrant had been issued, as my defence proved: it was a kidnapping. For seven hours I was kept incommunicado and tortured, before being handed over to the Colombian authorities.
Then, the evidence that was used in the trial was taken from the famous computer of the ex-guerilla chief Raúl Reyes. But this evidence was never presented in court. They had some emails that supposedly connected me with him, but they were only Word documents. The evidence was not always held in secure custody, as both an Interpol report and witnesses for the Attorney General admitted. There had been manipulation by the people who found the computer, the documents were altered.
The highest level, the ex-president Álvaro Uribe himself. It was quite clear the day after my detention. He announced at a public event that they had arrested a professor who was involved in ‘the evil of terrorism’, and that he was the FARC’s most dangerous international terrorist. He also thanked the Mexican government, and its president Felipe Calderón for their work. There was obviously an agreement between the two governments which enabled this to happen.
From what I know of the events that followed, General Óscar Naranjo, the ex-chief of the Colombian National Police was directly involved. It has also been proved that the Colombian state paid Mexican officials to carry out surveillance.
You were an academic. What part of your work could have been inconvenient for them?
This happened during Álvaro Uribe’s presidency and his policy of democratic security. In line with this perspective, many academics who were critics had been identified. Because it had been established by presidential decree that no armed conflict existed in Colombia, therefore it was prohibited even to talk about it. For them, there was a democracy and a terrorist threat. We, through our writings had exposed the enormous violations of human rights in Colombia, which went against the image of the country that they wanted to present internationally.
During the trial they presented many of my publications as if they had been written on orders from the leadership of FARC.
What is the long-term goal of this persecution?
I don’t think it is so much an action against Miguel Ángel as one against critical thinking about government policy and trade union activity. One way to discredit our thought and our activities is to try to show that the guerillas have infiltrated the university.
The current president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, has recognized the existence of an armed conflict.
I really don’t trust the way Santos is going, because he was Minister of Defence under Uribe. That isn’t to deny that the rhetoric has changed from the aggressive style of the past, but it hasn’t gone beyond just words. The proclamation of the Victims Law was important because it is a way of recognizing that the conflict does exist, but it has consequences that Santos doesn’t want to accept, like the existence of political prisoners. The government says that there are no prisoners of this type in Colombia, and that you only have to go to a prison and see that it is not true.
There are things that must be discussed through dialogue. It seems to me that we are at an important moment, where there is international pressure, and a general desire for peace among the Colombian people. If he is really serious he should start to take steps in this direction now.
Do you think a dialogue with FARC is possible?
I think it’s a necessity, and I think it can happen as long as there is international pressure. At the moment, some parts of Colombian society are building campaigns to find a political solution to the conflict through dialogue. But this has to be accompanied by a real willingness on the part of the government, to initiate change – the structural transformations which Colombia needs. It isn’t simply a matter of a peace settlement. What Colombia needs, for example is agrarian reform, and some improvement for a large sector of the population who are living in absolute poverty.
During my stay in London I’ve been able to learn about the conflict in Northern Ireland. 20 or 30 years ago a peace process like the one that happened later was unthinkable, and I believe that if there is a political will and commitment then it is possible. Although the outlook doesn’t seem very optimistic, I still believe it is possible. Let’s remember the saying: ‘It’s always darkest just before the dawn’.
Do you consider FARC a terrorist group?
No. And it is important that there should be different opinions in Colombia, because when someone says, at the international level, that FARC are not a terrorist group, they are immediately labelled as friends of the guerillas. And it isn’t like that. I consider them to be a political actor, and part of Colombian history, a response to the violence of the state.
How are you treated by the media?
The official media try to achieve what the trial failed to do. They publish opinion columns and articles saying that a terrorist is free due to a failure of the justice system. In Colombia this is like putting you in the public stocks, and it makes you a target for the paramilitaries. In Colombia there is a very close relationship between the media and economic influences. The media are used to silence those of us who hold opinions critical of the government. For example the newspaper El Tiempo was owned for a long time by the Santos family, the same as that of the current president. However I would distinguish two types of media. The official media, which did not guarantee me the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty; and the alternative national and international media who were a very important support in making known the truth about my case.
How can people resist attempts to silence them?
In my case, for example, the truth demands to be known. Now that I have left prison, I feel that I can’t stay silent. If the trial has left a mark on me it is in my conviction that by keeping silent we will not succeed in changing this situation. I feel committed to the prisoners that I met, and I’m going to continue fighting in defence of free critical thought, so that ideas can be freely expressed in Colombia, and so that there is a pluralism in public life.
(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)