Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Mother's Birthday Gift

Dear friends,

“This is the best gift that God could give me: bringing Nelson here today,” said Rosa on August 22. It was Rosa’s birthday and she was spending the afternoon in Saravena circuit court at the preliminary hearing for her son, Nelson Prieto. Nelson is a leader of the health workers union in Saravena who was arrested for “rebellion” on July 17, 2007 and imprisoned in Arauca City. He was brought to Saravena for the hearing.

I met Nelson during the commemoration of the first anniversary of the killing of his father, Jorge Prieto, and two other community leaders - Alirio Martinez and Leonel Goyeneche. The three men were executed by the military in the community of Caño Seco on August 5, 2004.

The last time I had seen Nelson was in September 2006 when we traveled in the same plane from Saravena to Bogotá and he expressed his concern about the persecution against him. This time he told me, “Being in prison is very difficult. Please tell people about my case.”

Nelson had been arrested previously for rebellion on November 12, 2002 during the first mass arrest in Saravena. More than 2,000 people were rounded up by the military and police that morning and taken to the sports arena. They were forced to walk past a truck in which two informants pointed out the people to be detained. Nelson and 42 others were charged with rebellion and imprisoned in Bogotá. He spent 15 months in prison before being granted conditional release.

Carmen, Nelson’s spouse, told me that she would take the 5 A.M. bus on Saturday from Saravena to Bogotá – a 12 hour trip. She would spend Saturday night on the sidewalk in front of the La Picota prison in order to visit Nelson on Sunday – the day for women to visit the prisons in Colombia.

Carmen now leaves Saravena at 2:30 A.M. on Sunday to get in line outside the Arauca City prison by 5 A.M. Yajaira (9 years old) and Sebastian (11 years old), their two children, travel to the prison every three months to visit their father. The last time they had seen Nelson was on May 25 and they were very happy to be with their father again in court.

The judge in the first case declared Nelson and the others to be innocent in 2006. That decision was appealed by the prosecutor. The Bogotá superior court upheld the innocent verdict last month and disqualified the testimony of the witnesses in the case.

Nelson is now in prison for the same crime for which two courts have declared him to be innocent. The “evidence” against him is the testimony of the same witness from the first case. That witness claims to be a former guerrilla, and he entered a government demobilization program in 2003. He states that he attended a meeting of guerrilla commanders in which Nelson was present in 2005 – two years after entering the government program.

The “investigation” against Nelson was carried out by the Support Unit of the prosecutor’s office based in the 18th military brigade headquarters in Arauca City. That unit was established in 2001 to investigate cases of “terrorism” – specifically defined as attacks against the pipeline that transports oil from Occidental Petroleum’s oilfield in Arauca to the Caribbean coast for shipment to the U.S. Nelson is charged with rebellion, not terrorism.

Nelson’s lawyers requested that the case be dismissed because he’s already been tried for this same crime and the Support Unit doesn’t have the authority to investigate cases other than terrorism. The prosecutor even agreed with them in relation to being tried twice for the same crime. Nelson’s lawyers also requested that if the case were to continue, that he be granted house arrest.

The judge ignored the concerns of the defense and the prosecutor, and denied the motions to dismiss the case and the request for house arrest.

In love and solidarity,


P.S. I will be in the U.S. and Canada during September for my annual pilgrimage to the Canadian Rockies. The week of September 15, I’ll be speaking in United Church of Christ congregations in MontanaBillings, Red Lodge, Big Timber, Bozeman, Butte and Missoula. If you’d like to attend one of those presentations, please let me know and I’ll send you the date, time and location.

(Photo of Rosa, Nelson, Yajaira and Sebastian outside the Saravena circuit court)