Last Thursday 30th March at 08:00 local time, environmental leaders, Professor Miller Dussan and Elsa Ardila, of the Association of those Affected by the Quimbo Megadam Project (ASOQUIMBO) had their case heard at the local courts in Garzon, Huila.
Both defenders have been facing legal proceedings initiated by Emgesa, the Colombian subsidiary of Italian energy transnational Enel, in relation to their community organising
As such, the leaders have spent the past five years living with criminal charges hanging over them. In the first case, Ardila and Dussan stand accused of “obstructing public roads and affecting public order”, following a protest in relation to damages made by the company to local infrastructure. Miller Dussan also faces a second, heavier charge of eight years imprisonment for “instigating the occupation of land” owned by the corporation. Taken together, these charges carry a combined maximum sentence of 16 years for the two leaders.
In October 2016 ASOQUIMBO’s lawyer, German Romero requested for the first of these charges to be dropped, arguing that those involved in the incident were exercising their constitutional rights to peaceful protest. The Public Prosecutor also later supported this request during proceedings on February 22nd.
The first case: Dropped
During Thursday’s one hour Hearing, the Judge, in turn, also accepted these arguments and duly upheld Ardila and Dussan’s right to social protest. The case for “obstructing public roads and affecting public order” has now been closed.
ASOQUIMBO’s lawyer, German Romero made the following remarks after the Hearing; “This result proves two things. One, that EMGESA’s attempt to attack ASOQUIMBO’s environmental leaders with judicial harassment tactics has failed, and secondly, that the ASOQUIMBO protest was perfectly legitimate and in accordance with Colombian constiutional norms”
Local communities in Huila joined together to form ASOQUIMBO back in 2009 to resist
the construction of Enel-Emgesa’s Quimbo megadam on the Magdalena River. Through a series of conferences, direct actions and art installations – amongst other interventions – ASOQUIMBO succeeded in shining a light on the gravity of the environmental and human impacts associated with the hydroelectric project. Going beyond local concerns, ASOQUIMBO continues to question the broader mining-energy politics in Colombia and beyond. The movement’s demands are, amongst others, for the construction of localized, sovereign and autonomous politics that respond to the real needs of local communities and that is based upon clean energy alternatives. They also demand an end to the judicial (and of other forms of) persecution being brought against its members.
This decision marks a win for hundreds and thousands of environmental defenders across Colombia and Latin America who are facing forced evictions, brutality and criminal charges for their resistance to the relentless advance of extractivist projects into their communities.
In the words of Professor Dussán “..this shows that international solidarity is effective at blocking these attempts to undermine social protest by means of judicial harassment.. and this is an example to follow in other resistente struggles…we have to mobilise locally and connect our efforts to these acts of international solidarity, this is how we can make real progress, as the dropping of charges against ASOQUIMBO clearly demonstrates”
The second case: Ongoing
Although there is cause to celebrate, there also remains work ahead in ensuring that ASOQUIMBO’s leaders are free from persecution. Professor Miller Dussan still faces a second legal charge for “instigating the occupation of lands” as a result of allegations made by ENEL-EMGESA. This charge could see the 67 year old academic locked up for up to eight years.
In response to civil society pressure on the multinational to drop all charges (see below), Emgesa-Enel released a statement on the 21st February, affirming its intention to “waive any further pending claim” against the leaders of ASOQUIMBO. The corporation also stated that it “has has no interest in a fight with Asoquimbo”.
Although this represents progress for the international campaign and Enel-Emgesa’s words on the judicial persecution of local leaders represent an encouraging next step, they now need to be translated into action.
In coordination with ASOQUIMBO, we will continue to pressure Enel-Emgesa in Colombia and internationally until it definitively withdraws all allegations of wrong-doing against the accused, Professor Miller Dussan.
These judicial harassment tactics are of course just one form of criminalisation of social protest being used against defenders across the region day after day. The case of Dussan and Ardila is emblematic of the kinds of strategies being used by governments and corporations to clamp down on dissent. Calling out these tactics and the role of foreign multinational corporations while standing in solidarity with at-risk defenders is now more important than ever in our struggles for social and environmental justice.
If you are working on related issues and would like to contact us, drop us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Civil Society Statement in Support of Miller Dussán & ASOQUIMBO
Democracy Center’s reply to ENEL-EMGESA via Business and Human Rights Resource Center
Miller Dussan’s profile on FrontLine Defenders website.
Article on OpenDemocracy.net: Damming dissent: how an Italian multinational is persecuting environmental defenders In Colombia
Business and Human Rights Resource Center case profile