“Dignity and intellectual freedom transcend, like a phoenix, the bars and cells of repression and state tyranny.”
These words of hope and defiance flew out of Samuel Morales’ prison cell in an open letter to supporters around the world and in his native Colombia, the most dangerous place to be a trade unionist. A former teacher in a oneroom rural school and regional president of the Colombian Trade Union Confederation (CUT), Morales was captured along with Raquel Castro, an activist with the Teachers’ Association of Arauca, on 5 August 2004 after a military operation in which they witnessed government soldiers shoot and kill three other trade union activists. Morales and Castro were convicted of “rebellion” in November 2006, despite serious doubts about the reliability of evidence against them. Amnesty International has expressed concerns that they may not have received a fair trial, especially since neither accused had a lawyer or was even aware the trial had occurred. Morales is appealing the conviction. Both Castro and Morales were elected officials of the CUT from Arauca, an oil-rich region in north-eastern Colombia where indigenous people and peasants have suffered human rights abuses by rightwing paramilitaries and have been uprooted from their lands by multinational oil companies. Their only “crime” has been involvement in a peaceful democratic CUT campaign to protect the environment and safeguard their community. While in prison, Castro was subjected to subjected to psychological torture, such as mock execution and being bound hand and foot and thrown into a helicopter with the bodies of her three murdered colleagues. Conditions for both prisoners were harsh, with fears for their lives being the daily reality. Nonetheless, both continued to teach and advocate for human rights while in jail. Castro also writes poetry from prison. Morales was released on 28 April 2007 but, as of press time, Castro remains incarcerated in the political prisoners’ wing of Bogotá Women’s Prison. Neither activist is expected to be able to attend the World Congress in Berlin to receive the Human and Trade Union Rights Award. While Morales’s release is welcome, he and his family continue to be at high risk of attack by paramilitaries who have previously threatened them. Education International joins Amnesty in calling on the Colombian authorities to ensure the safety of both teachers and their family members. Colombia has one of the worst human rights records in the world, but remains a major recipient of UK taxpayer’s money and British Petroleum is implicated in the abuses. For these reasons, UK trade unionists have been at the forefront of campaigns to defend their Colombian brothers and sisters. Amnesty International estimates that 4,000 trade unionists have been assassinated or “disappeared” in the past 20 years. The Colombian Human Rights Commission lists 33 teacher trade unionists killed in that country last year alone. In honouring Raquel Castro and Samuel Morales, EI also honours the thousands of other teachers and trade unionists who have paid with their freedom and even their lives for union principles, social justice and quality education for every Colombian child.