A Kangaroo Court refers to a show trial where the term “innocent until proven guilty” is turned into a theatrical technique to add some dramatic tension to a script written well in advance. As a journalist from Australia, the native land of the kangaroo, I was surprised at having to travel all the way to Colombia before I saw a trial which I personally believe had all the hallmarks of a Kangaroo Court.
The view from the courtroom on the 16th floor of Medellin’s Palace of Justice is beautiful: the wall is one large glass window and it looks out at a valley of red-brick houses that climb up the mountain in Colombia’s central Andes. Seated on the raised wooden bench with her back against the glass is the Judge Catalina Rendon of Medellin’s 5th Specialized Criminal Court and below her sits the accused, Luis Alberto Velasquez Molina, a terminally ill dialysis patient who is also the frontman for the punk band Sonido Libertario (Libertarian Sound).
There is no room for a jury, just a few seats up back reserved for observers like myself or for the defendant’s family. Luis Velasquez is a widow and his only living family is his 12-year-old son, presently at school, and destined to become an orphan a few weeks or months after this article is published.
The crime to which Velasquez was accused is the manufacture, possession, and trafficking of firearms or ammunition and narcotics under article 385 of the Colombian Criminal Code. Velasquez claims he never saw or touched the black sealed bag containing the military grenade and drugs, which was discovered on the 29th of December 2012 by police on a park bench in his proximity.
It is worth noting before I layout the numerous inconsistencies in the court case against Velasquez that my conviction of his innocence has been shaped by the time I spent getting to know him, in the three months preceding the trial on the 4th of October 2013, while shooting a photo essay that chronicles his last days as a free man.
I do firmly believe however if the transcripts of the court recordings were to reach the International Commission of Jurists for an independent review, then my view that a grave miscarriage of justice has occurred against Luis Velasquez would be vindicated. The facts speak for themselves.
“No one saw the grenade or the drugs, it was never presented as evidence at the trial, only an expert’s report but this expert was from the very same police force.” says Ruben Dario Muñoz, the lawyer working without charge to defend Velasquez. With 20 years experience working in criminal law, Muñoz has seen these cases many times before and remembers a previous client charged with possession of a handgun, which once independently examined turned out to be a toy-gun-replica allegedly planted by police. In the case of Luis Velasquez the evidence was destroyed.
“I requested permission to be accompanied by an independent expert to inspect the evidence and the black bag, which according to the police report is where they found the grenade and drugs, with the purpose of verifying if it was really a grenade or a toy, if the drugs were cocaine and marijuana or some other legal substance, and compare the fingerprints on the evidence with that of Luis Alberto’s.” says Muñoz.
“Initially the prosecutors gave me authorization but when I went, they told me they were doing inventory and would advise me when I could return. They never gave me authorization again. Later I found out that this “supposed” grenade and the drug were destroyed under the order of the police, I also found out that this order was given five days after I sent the first request to revise the evidence.”
In any court case establishing a motive is important when trying to connect the crime to the accused. Finding a motive in the case of Luis Alberto Velasquez Molina is only possible via an impartial examination of both sides of the courtroom. Velasquez had worked selling sweets and cigarettes in Park Periodista 6 days a week, 3 of those days after his 4 hour tri-weekly dialysis sessions, for a period of 8 years without incident. It is difficult by any stretch of the imagination to conjure a scenario where a civilian, who happens to discover a military grenade, would want to show it off at work the day before New Years Eve.
Examining the motive for the other side of the courtroom is a little easier when applying the age old technique applied by all good private investigators, detectives and journalists, as well as couch potato sleuths who watch the TV series CSI: “follow the money”
The Policy of Democratic Security introduced by ex-president Alvaro Uribe saw an increase in financial rewards for Colombia’s police and armed forces in exchange for confiscated weapons as well as FARC and ELN guerrillas killed in battle. Towards the end of Uribe’s second term when the false positives scandal exploded in the press, it became apparent these rewards turned many in the country’s armed forces into rogue bounty hunters that artificially inflated body counts by kidnapping civilians, executing them, then dressing them as enemy combatants to receive commissions.
There have been 3,896 confirmed false positive killings, the vast majority occurring between 2002 and 2008, making this policy the cause of more death and disappearances in the 6 years under Uribe than during the entire 17 year dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet in Chile.
The number of False Positive killings has dropped dramatically since the scandal first rocked Colombia thanks to domestic and international condemnation as well as the courageous work of lawyers fighting impunity inside Colombia’s broken legal system. The less severe manifestation of False Positives, where police plant weapons on civilians for commissions, has unfortunately escaped the scrutiny of everyone except the victims and their loved ones.
“For me there has always existed the doubt whether the police actually seized anything,” says Doctor Muñoz. “I could not prove if it was false or not, if the grenade was a toy or not, and if it was indeed real whether it belonged to the armed forces or not. Despite that there was no doubt from the judge who only needed the word of the police and their expert.”
The judge, Catalina Rendon Henao, also took the word of the police over the only witness in the trial, a man in his 60’s, who swore under oath that while sitting with his grandson he saw an unknown third party place a black sealed bag on the park bench in proximity to Velasquez moments before police arrived.
In most modern judicial systems around the world evidence tampered by police who stand to profit financially from a guilty verdict is enough to cause a mistrial. In a Colombian Kangaroo Court, Luis Alberto Velasquez Molina was condemned to 12 years in Bellavista, one of the most dangerous, overcrowded, and unsanitary prisons on the planet. A death sentence for a man in the final stages of renal failure.
As the police held out the handcuffs Velasquez broke down and sobbed, pleading with his captors to be careful, pointing to the collapsed veins on his arms caused by 10,000 hours of a metal tube pumping and filtering blood through his body. The police then removed him out of the courtroom where I managed to take a photo of this frail, terminally ill man being marched down the corridor to his certain death. As Dr. Muñoz entered the elevator he turned to me while tapping the ground floor button furiously saying, “this is Colombia, welcome to Colombia.”
The next day I received an email at 8:40pm informing me that Velasquez missed his first dialysis session in 13 years because the judge forgot to program it in with the prison. I replied: “But then he will die? Isn’t that illegal?”
The death penalty is illegal under the Colombian Constitution and the appeal to protect the right to life of Velasquez, by granting him house arrest, was launched by the lawyers but this time accompanied by a social media campaign which went viral in English and Spanish as well as a petition on Change.org which collected 7,952 signatures.
For the first two months of incarceration Velasquez had to sleep on a cardboard carton on the floor of his overcrowded cell. He would then lose the catheter in his arm which meant the dialysis machine had to pump blood directly into his neck as well as catch a bacteria which resulted in the surgical removal of part of his lung.
The most dangerous thing about a Colombian prison however is the food they serve, which by western standards is unfit for animals, and gave Velasquez constant diarrhea.
Around the world, the punk rock community mobilized and organized punk concerts in Medellin, Bogota, Ecuador, Peru, Spain and France to raise money so Velasquez could afford to buy food from the prison cafeteria that wouldn’t kill him.
The UK Punk band DOOM also sold copies of their “Police Bastard EP” while on World Tour and told Colombia Reports that “we raised about £200 in the short time it was up online, so not a great deal sold but a lot of people paid a lot more than asked. We’d like to help all causes of injustice but this one was so … ‘obvious’ & tragic, we felt obliged to help, could be any of us on a trumped up charge, but so more serious over there. Makes you wonder about the inhumanity of some people, what happened to twist them that way.”
On the 29th of April 2013, Velasquez was granted house arrest, after seven months in prison, where he can now live the little time he has left with dignity surrounded by loved ones. “I am Luis Alberto Velasquez Molina and I am innocent.” He told Colombia Reports on his first night of house arrest, “Thank you to all the people around the world for helping me with your signatures and to DOOM, Jake, the Doctor Marialena, Doctor Muñoz and all the energy of punks of the world.”
Luis Alberto Velasquez Molina is the new face of the False Positive Scandal not because his life is worth more than the thousands of other victims, but because his death in prison was preventable and was prevented thanks to people around the world who stood with Colombians that believe financial rewards for crimes committed against civilians must stop right now.