The invisible crime of torture in Colombia

Despite great progress in the security over the past decades in Colombia, the use of torture is still systematic in the country.

In this blog, journalist and guest blogger Hannah Matthews, who lives in the Colombian capital Bogota, gives her view on the prevalence of torture and what attention needs to be given to the situation now to stop torture.

An almost invisible crime in the country, masked by the prevalence of extrajudicial killings and forced displacement, the issue of torture in Colombia deserves immediate international scrutiny.

It’s been one year since I moved to Bogota and, despite not witnessing torture first hand, I have encountered many human rights defenders who have spent time in prison under false charges of criminal or dissident activity.

A street in Bogota

A street in Bogota

Beyond the human rights field, social protest is criminalised at any available opportunity. Despite the peaceful nature of protests, tear gas canisters are frequently fired into the crowd and riot police adopt aggressive stances, igniting an otherwise peaceful demonstration.

Unfortunately my observations only support those made by the Colombian Coalition Against Torture, who outline how torture is used as a means of political persecution with the purpose of forcefully obtaining confessions or information, an discriminatory instrument of repression against social protest, or simply as a way to plant fear within Colombian society to prevent dissent against the authorities.

But the Colombian context is infinitely more complex than that. With so many different state and non-state actors in the mix, all torturing with different aims and purpose, complicated dynamics further convolute victims’ access to justice. The simple dichotomy between government and guerrilla groups, right and left, good and bad, that the international community continues to propagate is too simple and runs the risk of masking important issues and human rights violations that occur across the spectrum.

Due to the widespread fear and high risk associated with denouncing cases of torture, impunity reigns with very few cases ever being fully investigated or tried. Human rights defenders and other entities who speak out against the government are under constant threat of persecution and mistreatment, as are those who express their dissent through peaceful protest. The most recent and shocking examples of this could be seen in the police treatment of farmers and students marching in the agrarian strikes of this year and 2013. In 2013 at least 800 protesters were badly injured by the public security forces and 15 people were killed. Last year over 3,000 people were arrested during social protests.

2Despite the ratification of the various human rights treaties, including the Convention Against Torture (UNCAT) and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, rights to freedom of expression and freedom from torture are not respected, protected or fulfilled in Colombia. Colombia has still not ratified or applied the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).

“Torture continues to be generalised and systematic in Colombia. It is perpetrated by the Public Force, by the paramilitaries and by the guerrillas, but the party principally responsible for these acts is the state,” said Isabelle Heyer, a member of the Colombian Jurists Commission.

This coalition has recorded instances of torture over the years in Colombia and has concluded that while the majority of cases continue to be committed by security forces, right wing militias and demobilized paramilitary groups are also at the heart of many incidences. Over 90% of the incidences of torture the coalition recorded between 2001 and 2009 were attributed to Colombian state forces, with less than 10% attributed to rebel guerrilla forces.

Current President Juan Manuel Santos has promised this year will see the signing of a historic peace agreement between the government and the most notorious guerrilla group, the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces). There is hope that this will establish a reconciliation process, but the country waits with baited breath. This process, if established, will be the tip of a huge iceberg in terms of restoring true justice and human rights principles, something very much needed for this war-torn country.

According to the Colombian Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science, 1,913 people presented signs of mistreatment between 2010 and 2014, 345 of which were women. Torture and inhuman and degrading treatment remain most common amongst the Colombian prison population.

Sexual violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive modes of torture, with Ms. Heyer from the Colombian Jurists Commission calling it “an habitual, systematic and invisible practice, which enjoys impunity in the majority of cases and whose principal perpetrators are soldiers and police.”

Among the prison population, organisations have expressed their concern about the high levels of psychological torture within prisons, with some inmates experiencing a serious lack of access to fresh running water, sufficient hygiene facilities and medical attention, as well as being subjected to verbal abuse and mistreatment from the prison guards.

All of this torture and ill-treatment though is no recent phenomena. Forty years of internal conflict, coupled with the state’s misuse of power and crackdowns on social and political opposition, means torture in Colombia remains a pertinent issue indeed. Improvements are scarce and unprogressive and any real access to justice or rehabilitation has not been assured.

Yet much of the world goes on regardless. Perhaps Colombia is too far removed from the lives of others, or simply too unknown. But it cannot go on like this forever. More needs to be done to end torture in the country. Today.

To find out more about what the IRCT is doing in Colombia through member CAPS, click this link.

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