Rearrest of Colombian dissident academic sparks international outcry

The latest detention of Miguel Ángel Beltrán is viewed by many scholars as an attack on academic freedom

November 20, 2015
Miguel Ángel Beltrán, National University of Colombia
Locked up: the lecturer was previously held for two years alongside drug traffickers

More than 5,000 academics have signed a petition calling for the release of jailed Colombian academic Miguel Ángel Beltrán, whose detention has been labelled an attack on scholarly freedom.

The petition – presented to the Colombian Embassy in London on 19 November – calls on the South American state’s supreme court to make a swift decision on whether it will prosecute the dissident sociologist.

Dr Beltrán, a lecturer in sociology at the National University of Colombia, has now spent more than three months in Bogotá’s notorious La Picota maximum security prison since he was arrested in July.

The reinstated charges of “rebellion” relate to the same evidence – emails said to have been discovered on a computer in the jungle base of guerrilla commander Raúl Reyes – that was used to detain Dr Beltrán for two years until June 2011 when all criminal charges against him were dropped.

Dr Beltrán – whose academic research has critiqued the government’s strategy against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) group – now faces another indefinite period of imprisonment while authorities decide what action they intend to take against him.

“This is a never-ending campaign of persecution and harassment against someone who is 100 per cent committed to peace and equality,” said Hasan Dodwell, campaigns officer at British non-governmental organisation Justice for Colombia, which has coordinated the petition in association with the University and College Union.

“However, his critical analysis of the Colombian armed conflict offers an alternative story to the one presented by the government, so he is seen as dangerous,” he added.

‘I was held in a 3m-by-4m cell’

In an interview with Times Higher Education  published in July 2012 – shortly after Dr Beltrán received a standing ovation at the UCU’s annual congress in Manchester – the sociologist described how he was placed with paramilitary prisoners, drug traffickers and violent criminals while awaiting trial.

As the academic had been very critical of paramilitaries in his writing, often speaking out against their human rights abuses, he believed his “life was in great danger”.

“I was held in a 3m-by-4m cell with five or six other people,” he told THE.

“There was no proper sanitation, the food was terrible and people often got sick because they were so close together,” he said.

The support of UK lecturers who wrote to him and campaigned for his release was also invaluable during his custody.

“There were moments [when] every door seemed to be closing. But that solidarity meant I did not feel alone,” he said.

The latest petition calls on the Colombian authorities to ensure due process is followed during Dr Beltran’s appeal process, attracting signatures from academics in more than 20 countries, with many stating that they regard his treatment as an attack on free speech.

“We call on the Colombian government to ensure that Dr Beltran’s appeal is handled swiftly and fairly,” said Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary.

“This petition sends a clear message to the Colombian authorities that attempts to intimidate academic staff and restrict academic freedom will not be tolerated by the international community,” she said.

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