PBI-Canada speaks at Prisoners’ Justice Day vigil in Ottawa/ Algonquin territory
An abbreviated version of this speech was presented by PBI-Canada coordinator Brent Patterson at the Prisoners’ Justice Day vigil on August 10:
Thank you to the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP) for the opportunity to be with you today.
Prisoners’ Justice Day emerged as a prisoner-initiated day of non-violent resistance to carceral repression and is now an internationally recognized day of solidarity and action.
It’s important, as CPEP seeks to do, to draw attention to the harms of incarceration, including abuse, deaths and inhumane treatment; the need to support those who are incarcerated; and the imperative to work for transformative change.
Over the next few moments, I would like to try to connect Prisoners’ Justice Day with the criminalization and imprisonment of the human rights defenders in Latin America who are accompanied by Peace Brigades International (PBI).
I would also highlight that three of the founders of PBI – Gene Keyes, Lee Stern and Charles Walker – were themselves imprisoned in the United States for their anti-war activities (Gene for one year, Lee for three years).
PBI supports social leaders, environmental defenders, Indigenous land defenders and human rights defenders who have been imprisoned for their defence of fundamental rights.
In Guatemala, we accompany Maya Q’eqchi’ environmental defender Bernardo Caal Xol who spent four years in prison for his resistance to the construction of hydroelectric dams on ancestral lands.
In Honduras, we visited in prison eight Guapinol River defenders, who were jailed for 914 days pending trial for their resistance to an open-pit iron oxide mine polluting their drinking water.
In Mexico, we have accompanied the Cerezo Committee that was formed after the arrest, torture and detention of three brothers in maximum-security penitentiaries. Alejandro was in prison for almost four years, while Héctor and Antonio were in prison for almost eight years.
And in Colombia we accompany the Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners. Along with advocating for political prisoners, they have denounced overcrowding, the lack of medical care, restricted access to water, the differentiated risks faced by women in prison, and the systemic discrimination faced by the LGBTQI+ community in prison.
Criminalization of land defenders in Canada
In the lands and territories of Canada, we also work to draw attention to the violence of the RCMP C-IRG unit, a specialized, militarized unit formed specifically to repress Indigenous land defenders opposed to logging and pipelines, including the Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia.
Thirteen Wet’suwet’en water protectors and supporters are now facing criminal contempt charges for upholding their laws that predate Canada and their right to free, prior and informed consent.
Gidimt’en land defender Molly Wickham, also known as Sleydo’, says the message behind the criminalization she is experiencing is: “follow colonial laws or else you’re gonna go to jail.”
On November 23, 2021, Gidimt’en Checkpoint posted this video of Gidimt’en land defender Sleydo’ speaking after four days in police custody. In it Sleydo’ says: “C-IRG and the RCMP need to be abolished. Anybody who is not into prison abolition should be after this experience that we’ve had.”
Jail terms for human rights defenders
Mary Lawlor, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, says: “Targeting human rights defenders with long jail terms destroys lives, families and communities.”
As we are hearing today, the same, of course, can be said about the impact of prison on everyone.
What we see is the criminalization, judicialization and imprisonment of those resisting corporate and state violence.
500 days in prison for Ferney Salcedo
I want to share just briefly the story of the imprisonment of social leaders from the community of San Luis de Palenque, Casanare.
Last summer, I met with Ferney Salcedo, a farmer, who raised concerns about the impacts of a Canadian oil company, Frontera Energy, on his community. This included the company’s heavy trucks damaging the roads, the lack of local employment provided by the company, and water pollution.
Meanwhile the company signed two “protection agreements” with the Colombian Ministry of Defence.
Just days after the signing of these agreements, the police and military arrested Ferney and his neighbours in a massive operation including the landing of Black Hawk helicopters on their farmyards.
Following this, Ferny spent 500 days in prison without trial. First in the local Yopal jail, then to the maximum security La Picota prison.
Ferney, his wife Yulivel, and six neighbours are accused of being part of a terrorist group, conspiracy to commit crimes, blocking public roads, and violence against public servants – all of which they deny.
They still face a prolonged trial on this and face the possibility of more time in prison for their social activism.
Maya Q’eqchi’ journalist Carlos Choc faces jail time
I would also like to share with you the story of Maya Q’eqchi’ journalist Carlos Ernesto Choc.
Carlos will be on trial later this month, and faces time in jail, for trumped-up charges related to his filming of the police murder of a Maya Q’eqchi’ fisherperson protesting against the pollution of Lake Izabal by the Fenix nickel mine (first established by a Canadian company).
There will be the opportunity to hear from him directly on Friday August 18 at 1 pm ET via this webinar.
We join with you today to reject state violence, economic violence, and repression by state institutions, including prisons, the police and military – and in support of economic and social justice.