Colombians say role in protests made them targets of vengeful authorities
By Irene Escudero
Bogota, Oct 28 (EFE).- A rural schoolteacher in southwestern Colombia says she faced attempted murder charges after shielding a police officer from hooded, stick-wielding attackers, an incident that occurred amid anti-government protests in May and June of this year.
“I knew that at some moment in my life something would happen to me,” Luz (a fictitious name) told Efe, adding that she was never intimidated by threats from paramilitary groups or parents who did not like her critical thinking.
“That’s been my big problem: not remaining silent.”
In her small town, where many of her former students were protesting a lack of opportunities for young people and a proposed – though subsequently scrapped – tax overhaul that would have required a broader swath of the country to pay income tax and raised the value-added tax on goods and services, a group of hooded individuals set up a roadblock in an area with sugar mills and factories operated by multinational companies.
“We do our thing and they do theirs,” she told her ex-students, trying to keep them out of trouble.
Around 10 days later, three armed individuals (later shown to be plain-clothes police) who arrived in a white van stepped out of the vehicle and opened fire; the people blocking the road managed to overpower and disarm them and then beat them with sticks.
“I threw myself on the police officer,” not to hurt him but to shield him from the aggressors, Luz said. “You’re not killing anybody here,” she screamed. The police officer managed to flee.
Luz, who had been offered a job in another country and was preparing to relocate abroad, was arrested several weeks later at the airport.
She spent several days at a police station where she was charged with attempted murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated torture, crimes punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
A judge dropped the charges, but the woman has been the target of threats and is prohibited from leaving the country due to her links to the ongoing investigation.
Roughly 95 percent of cases brought against people arrested in anti-government demonstrations fell apart after “extremely exaggerated charges” were brought against them, Brahiam Corredor, an attorney with an NGO affiliated with the Defender Libertad (Defend Freedom) campaign, winner of this year’s National Human Rights Award, told Efe.
Among the remaining cases is one involving Fabian Bernate, a young man who is in the process of opening a scenic, hillside restaurant in Bogota.
In November 2019, he joined with protesters expressing anger at economic inequality and violence against civic leaders.
Amid one of the disturbances, after seeing a mob nearly club a policeman to death, he picked up the officer’s helmet and tried to return it to a nearby police station.
But when he arrived, he said he was roughed up by one of the on-duty cops.
“He grabbed me and began hitting me,” said Fabian, who was later arrested. “They were charging me with things that I actually never did. They told me I’d hit two police officers.”
The young man has spent the past two years in courtrooms while his attorney has attempted to expose the contradictions in the police testimony.
“There’s no evidentiary basis for saying beyond a doubt that Fabian struck a police officer,” Corredor, his attorney, said.
No judgment has yet been handed down, but both Fabian and his lawyer are optimistic.