Education International
Education International

Colombia denies exit visa to award winner

published 21 July 2007 updated 21 July 2007

BERLIN — The government of Colombia has denied an exit visa to Samuel Morales, one of two winners of Education International’s highest award for defence of human and trade union rights.

Samuel Morales photo: Amnesty International

As a result, Morales cannot travel to Berlin to accept the award being presented July 25 at the global organisation’s 5th World Congress. Meanwhile, his co-winner, Raquel Castro, remains incarcerated in the political prisoners’ wing of the women’s prison in Bogotá.

“Teachers around the world are calling on the government of Colombia to show respect for international law on human and trade union rights by setting Raquel Castro free from prison, and allowing her and Samuel Morales the right to travel to our Congress and accept in person this award,” said Thulas Nxesi, President of EI.

“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 with their lives for union principles, social justice and quality education for every Colombian child,” Nxesi added.

In an email to colleagues and fellow human rights defenders, Morales said he and Castro wanted to share the award with them.

“This prize represents the sacrifice and strength of so many men and women who have given their lives and their teaching to the defence of fundamental rights. It is also a recognition of all those who have taught us and guided us in this difficult work,” Morales wrote.

The two Colombians were nominated for the award by teacher unions from the United Kingdom and Australia in recognition of their tremendous courage and commitment in the face of repression. Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. The Colombian Human Rights Commission lists 33 teacher trade unionists killed in that country last year alone, and just last month another teacher was murdered.

This month Amnesty International issued a 55-page report entitled Killings, arbitrary detentions and death threats – the reality of trade unionism in Colombia. In it, Amnesty stated that “a coordinated military-paramilitary strategy designed to undermine the work of trade unionists continues to be pursued both through their physical elimination and by seeking to discredit the legitimacy of trade union work.”

Morales and Castro are both teachers and elected officials of the Colombian Trade Union Confederation (CUT) in Arauca, an oil-rich region in north-eastern Colombia where indigenous people and peasants have suffered human rights abuses and have been uprooted from their lands. Their only “crime” has been involvement in a peaceful democratic CUT campaign to protect the environment and safeguard their communities.

The two teachers were captured on 5 August 2004 after a military operation in which they witnessed government soldiers assassinate three other trade union activists. They were convicted of “rebellion” in November 2006, despite serious doubts about the reliability of evidence against them, particularly since neither accused had a lawyer or was even aware their trials had occurred. Morales is appealing the conviction.

Morales was released on 28 April 2007, but Castro remains imprisoned even though she has already served more than the minimum sentence required prior to a conditional release.

“We welcome the release of Samuel Morales, but remain deeply concerned that he and his family are still 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,” said Nxesi.