On May 1, 2016, four student leaders and members of the Colombian Association of University Students (ACEU) were detained, frisked and arrested after participating in a peaceful march celebrating International Workers’ Day.
The march was described as the calmest such march in many years, without major disturbances. However, immediately following the march, Alexis Casas Valencia, Cristian Camilo Peña, Juan Camilo Ángel, and Santiago Ángel — all of whom are affiliated with ACEU — were reportedly stopped by plainclothes police identifying themselves as members of the national police force, known as SIJIN. They were reportedly taken to a local police station and stripped of their belongings, and the police claimed to have found spray cans, stencils and FARC-related stickers on them. The students disputed these claims.
The students were later arrested and charged with terrorism. During their first court hearing, the prosecutor reportedly presented photos of graffiti bearing anti-government/state police messages (although the students were reportedly not present in any of the photos). The prosecutor reportedly alleged that one of the bases for the terrorism charge was the purported pro-FARC politics of members of student movements at public universities generally.
The criminal court reportedly dismissed the criminal charges against the students, finding that, even if the students had been guilty of vandalism, there was no evidence that the students had committed a crime related to terrorsim. The students were released on June 1, 2016.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention and arrest of student activists in retaliation for the non-violent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association. While State authorities have a right to maintain order and respond to legitimate security concerns, such actions must comply with States’ human rights obligations, including those relating to freedom of expression, freedom of association, due process, and academic freedom, which are protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.