Colombia: release of young protesters detained in 2021 revives prison crisis debate

According to the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, 230 young people will be released before December 24. The controversial announcement has once again brought to light the problem of overcrowding in the country's prisons.

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Photo: Colprensa

LatinAmerican Post | July Vanesa López Romero

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Leer en español: Colombia: liberación de jóvenes detenidos en protestas 2021 reaviva debate de crisis carcelaria

On December 3, the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, announced in a meeting in the city of Pasto that he would make one of his promises come true when he was elected as leader: the release of the youth of the so-called "First Line " who were detained during the 2021 protests. “The right to protest is a democratic right. The right to express oneself, to mobilize, is a democratic right. Governments that order their police to kill, imprison, torture and detain young people are not democratic governments. And this is the government of change”, he said in the middle of his speech.

The president also assured that 230 people would be released before Christmas, in addition to naming them "peace managers." The news has generated controversy and has unleashed criticism, especially from the Colombian right-wing, and, of course, put the discussion around measures to control overcrowding in the country's prisons on the table again.

There Is Possible a Court Pardon?

One of the most recurrent criticisms that the measure being implemented by the current Government has received is that of the improper use of power to interfere in the Judiciary. Alfonso Prada, Minister of the Interior, and Néstor Osuna, Minister of Justice, are in charge of making this a reality. In the face of criticism, Prada assured that the measure "is not a process of amnesty, pardon, or judicial pardon," and that all judicial processes will continue with the respective judges until the end of due process. Likewise, Prada stressed that each case will be carefully and individually reviewed.

Both Petro and Prada have clarified that this measure is transitory, and its purpose is to make use of the youth leaders of the protests for a justice process that confronts the events that occurred in last year's protests. However, neither of them has given details on how this measure will be handled at the legislative level.

This move by the Government is protected under Law 2272 of 2022, which seeks to define peace policy as State policy. When te goverment talk about "peace managers", it refers to the spokespersons, about whom the law says: "Those who act as members of social and humanitarian organizations whom the President of the Republic considers can contribute to the peace process will be admitted as spokespersons, to social conflict, and are in deprivation of liberty.” In that order of ideas, those released would take a role as spokespersons. The legislative gaps that surround the Law, and itself the procedure that Petro seeks to carry out, have not defined what the conditions would be, in what situation or scenario they would fulfill their duty as spokespersons and how a spokesperson process would be carried out alongside a Judicial process.

Given this scenario, it is worth asking if the Petro government makes this decision eagerly and going over the Judicial branch led by the pressure it has received from its voters to fulfill its campaign promises, or if the decision can bring about a benefit in the peace processes that the president is building.

In contrast, this measure is historic, because it is showing a State that releases prisoners during the previous government. The chips that Petro moves may seem dangerous, but they are also accurate when it comes to defining him as a leader who little by little fulfills the promises that led him to the presidency.

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A Temporary Solution to the Prison Overcrowding Crisis?

Prison overcrowding in Colombia rose to 20.9% at the beginning of November and currently threatens to be a problem that will explode in the hands of the Petro government if it is not controlled in time. On previous occasions, the president mentioned as a solution to the problem a bill that offers alternative sentences to inmates who are convicted of crimes that are not “more serious.”

Releasing the young detainees from the Front Line is part, to a certain extent, of this need to seek and find quick solutions to this concern that highlights the lack of human rights guarantees for prisoners and, of course, an economic crisis. It is estimated that just one prisoner can cost the State 31.1 million pesos a year.

Giving the freedom to 230 people who had pretrial detention while their legal situation is resolved is not going to solve this crisis in any way, especially taking into account the legal loopholes that surround the situation. But this seems to be the beginning of what is expected to be a concrete bill to calm the overcrowding crisis. From the Ministry of Justice, it is expected that this project will be presented to the Senate and Chamber in March of next year.

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