Repression of Columbian

Rob Durbridge
President, SEARCH Foundation

Recently I was a witness to an interview by the Australian Federal Police of Alejandro Rodriguez, a young Argentine-Australian engineer and union member.

Alejandro is a friend who is involved in a campaign to raise awareness about the repression of trade unionists and peasants in Colombia.

His family in Argentina was subject to repression during the military dictatorship, including relatives who were ‘disappeared’ so it is not hard to understand his motives.

I first met him and his partner at a union conference where he asked me and other delegates to attend a picket of Rio Tinto which is involved in mining in Colombia and backs the military regime.

The AFP said he was required by law to attend the interview where it was said information was required by the Colombian National Police about his relations with people in Australia and Colombia.

It was a security matter prompted by the seizure of a laptop in a raid in Ecuador!

He was asked whether he was a member of a trade union or a ‘conservative party’ in Victoria.

I think we know what they meant.

Colombia is the worst country in the world for the political murders of trade union leaders.

According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 49 unionists were killed in 2008, and 838 killed between 2000 and 2008, with 95 per cent of the cases ‘unsolved’.

Campaigners for union peace and justice in Colombia deserve our support, not threats and intimidation.

Anti-terror laws a Howard legacy

Australia’s anti-terrorist laws passed under the Howard Government and retained by the Rudd Government formally exclude prosecution of those involved only in dissent and protest.

But the scope of the activities which can be included in the definition of a “terrorist act” is breathtaking…the concepts of aiding and abetting and conspiracy have wide operation which can trap people who have no connection with terrorism whatsoever.

Nobody can condone terrorism, which is politically-motivated violence against civilians … people were naturally frightened by the 9/11 attack and in 2003 Howard gave the AFP and the spy agencies ASIO and ASIS free rein to go after alleged terrorists in Australia.

When the laws were reviewed before their 3-year ‘sunset’, many people argued that they were too draconian, including the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Several court cases have demonstrated that this is the case.

Under the laws a person can be secretly detained for weeks without notice on suspicion that they ‘have knowledge’ about terrorism, even if they are not even a suspect.

Anyone who publicly reveals detention of this kind is themselves liable for arrest.

A person who does nothing but advocate support for a listed organisation or who raises funds while recklessly not knowing to whom the funds were going can be found guilty.

In my friend’s case he was advised by a lawyer experienced in these matters to say nothing except what was legally required.

The lawyer had seen the way the system had operated to hold in prison Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who denounced the government of that country. He believed the Sri Lankan Government was behind the detentions.

It has been reported in the ‘Australian’ that the AFP travelled to Colombia in 2009 to interview Ms Liliany Obando in prison in Bogota about the people she knows in Australia.

Ms Obando is a representative of the agricultural workers union who made a speaking tour sponsored by a number of unions in 2007.

Ms Obando is only the most recent of a number of visitors here to draw attention the violence, imprisonment and murder of unionists in that country by militia associated with the regime.

Several Australian union delegations have gone to Colombia for the same purpose in recent years.

We are all terrorists

Union and solidarity campaigners have been campaigning like this for many years.

It was the armed resistance by the East Timorese and the persistence of activists supporting the independence of East Timor which eventually broke down the bipartisan support for Indonesia’s illegal annexation … in the course of 25 years a lot of aid and campaign funds were raised for the resistance and Fretilin, the party which formed the first government of the new country, and for many other projects by churches and aid groups.

All that activity could be suppressed and those involved jailed under ‘anti-terrorist laws’ today.

Until 1999, the Australian government listed Fretilin as ‘terrorist’ and banned contacts with them. Colombian workers and peasants resisting brutal repression deserve support.

Unions know that ASIO and other spy agencies have a history of selective repression and victimisation against the Left – including in the Labor Party, unions and organisations which represent workers and their communities.

It seems that now the AFP is acting on behalf of the Colombian National Police to threaten those who are campaigning to make Australians aware of the repression and murderous violence in that country.

This AFP operation is a direct assault on legitimate trade union activity, and the union movement needs to respond strongly to stop it, and if possible, to orient the AFP and other security agencies to support democratic rights, especially workers rights to organise and to collectively bargain.

Mr Brendan O’Connor MHR
Minister for Home Affairs
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
Fax: (02) 6273 7098
Email: Brendan.O’

AFP abusing its power re Colombian trade union solidarity
Dear Brendan,
I am writing to protest against a campaign being waged by the Australian Federal Police using counter-terrorism laws, against Mr Alejandro Rodriguez and other trade unionists who have been active in support of trade unions in Colombia in recent years.
Colombia is the worst country in the world for the political murders of trade union leaders. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 49 were killed in 2008, and 838 killed between 2000 and 2008, and 95 per cent of the cases ‘unsolved’. Mr Rodriguez and other Australian unionists who have been trying to give support to the Colombian unions deserve support and not political persecution by the Australian Federal Police.
Mr Rodriguez was required to present himself for questioning in Melbourne on February 3, 2010. The AFP officers involved made it clear they were acting at the request of the Colombian National Police.
This AFP campaign was revealed in an article in The Australian of September 19, 2009, by Bernard Lane, which reported that an AFP officer had visited a high-profile Colombian union leader, Ms Liliany Obando, imprisoned there, on September 2, 2009. The AFP officer was allowed to question Ms Obando without her lawyer being present, and without giving his correct identity. Ms Obando refused to answer any questions and protested at the visit.
Ms Obando had visited Australia in 2007 in her work as International Officer for FENSUAGRO, an agricultural workers trade union, during which she exposed the severe repression of the union movement and the very poor working conditions of the union members, and asked Australian trade unions to increase their protests and to develop their relationships with FENSUAGRO and other Colombian unions.
Ms Obando was arrested in 2008 and charged with ‘rebellion’ for allegedly raising funds in Australia and elsewhere for the rebel group FARC. She strenuously denies this.
I am deeply concerned that both the AFP and ASIO are involved in a completely bogus political crusade to suppress criticism of the Colombian government’s human rights record in Australia. This is a very serious abuse of the powers now provided under anti-terrorism laws to these two agencies.
I urge that you immediately review this matter and the general use of anti-terrorism laws for political persecution and censorship.
I urge the Australian government to publicly condemn the shocking extent of murders of trade union leaders in Colombia and refer the case to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights and the United Nations Security Council since it is clear that the government of Colombia has failed to take action to apprehend the killers and put them on trial.
Yours sincerely,

See also Article from The Australian, September 19, 2009
AFP probes Colombian rebel links
By Bernard Lane

‘An Australian Federal Police agent visited high-profile Colombian prisoner Liliany Obando in a Bogota women’s jail on September 2 , in pursuit of local ties to Marxist guerrillas known as FARC.
The agent pressed Obando for details of trips she made to Australia in 2005 and 2007, as a representative of the farm workers’ peak union body Fensuagro.

Obando is charged with “rebellion” against the state and covert offshore fundraising for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has waged a 40-year guerilla war against the government and is regarded as a terrorist group.
Her public trial is imminent.
During her visits to Australia, she gave talks and met politicians including Labor MP Laurie Ferguson and the Australian Greens’ Lee Rhiannon, as well as trade union leaders.
Her pitch was that Colombia’s centre-right government and paramilitary groups were murdering trade unionists and abusing human rights.
Mr Ferguson and Ms Rhiannon said they were surprised by the charges against Obando and did not recall her fundraising.’
See the article

NSW co-ordinator of the group Peace and Justice for Colombia, Elizabeth Rivera, said there had been plans to tap trade unions and political parties for money towards Fensuagro’s human rights work in Colombia, but these had come to nothing, partly because of Obando’s arrest.’
See the article.

joe hill


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