Thursday, 14 June 2012

Executive Report: Justice for Colombia

Before the main meeting of the National Executive commenced, we were addressed by a guest speaker from Colombia-   Dr Miguel Angel Beltran, a University lecturer and trade union activist in Columbia’s university professors’ union ASPU.
Miguel had been  imprisoned between May 2009 and June 2011. He wasn’t a union leader- he was a trade union member and was doing academic work on sociology, which was interpreted as terrorism. When he was in prison, he was visited by an international delegation from Justice for Columbia,  including Christine Blower, and he spoke of how moving this was for him and other political prisoners.

On the delegation, Steve Gillan, the General Secretary of the UK's Prison Officers' Association observed:
"I worked in British prisons for more than 20 years, but nothing prepared me for the suffering and injustice I saw inflicted on our trade union colleagues held in Buen Pastor Prison, Colombia. As trade unionists, we must do everything in our power to stop these abuses."
Miguel praised the solidarity shown by NUT to brother and sister trades unionists - Colombia is a dangerous  country to be  a trade unionist- especially a teacher trade unionist- there have been hundreds of assassinations and others  being imprisoned for the crime of campaigning for the best future for education and children !  He considers himself one of the lucky ones- but because of his critical academic work, he was imprisoned for two years in a maximum security prison. He was heartened during this difficult experience by the support and solidarity shown by human rights groups, trade unionists and others outside Columbia.

"Solidarity has no borders, I realised we all share same hopes and desires for a better society."

Unfortunately the situation in Columbia not changed- it is still difficult and dangerous for trade unionists. Despite Colombian government mounting a  huge PR offensive suggesting  that the situation has improved, this is not the reality. 61 further trade unionists have been murdered since the new president was elected.
The Colombian Government is currently pushing a bill to completely privatise all public education. Students, Trade Unionists, teachers etc. all  mobilised against this bill and managed to delay it. The Columbian Goernment reaction has been to target leaders of the student and teacher union movement- they have been arrested and charged with rebellion.  Miguel highlighted one union brother in prison since October for rebellion- his crime ? Defending public education ! Many others were imprisoned or facing death threats.
Miguel asked the NUT to maintain and strengthen our solidarity with trade union brothers and sisters in Columbia.
At trial, Miguel was completely absolved of all charges – but he can no longer live in Columbia because of death threats. He urged support for the Justice for Colombia campaigns- both the prisoner campaigns but also the peace campaign- Colombians have lived in a state of war for 50 years- but they want peace with social justice.

Miguel was given a warm standing ovation by the full executive.
Christine recalled that when she met Miguel in prison,  he was brought in in shackles, and guarded by four prison officers "armed to the teeth" .  As soon as he was released from prison,  he had to flee to Argentina because of persistent death threats: he has an 18 month old son who he has never met and only seen on Skype. She reiterated how important it was for us to support Colombian trades unionists and Justice for Colombia- and urged Divisions and Associations to affiliate.

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