COLOMBIA: Groups rally to free imprisoned professor

Education International, a Belgium-based global teachers' federation, has ramped up its protest against the incarceration of Colombian professor and trade unionist Miguel Beltrán by launching an online petition to free him. The petition went online after its launch on 10 September at the International Conference on Higher Education and Research in Vancouver, Canada.

Beltrán was tried last year by the Colombian government on charges of 'rebellion' and 'breaking the law for terrorist purposes'. There is no evidence to support the allegations against him, say the organisations that have been gathering signatures across the globe to demand his release.

Beltrán was deported from Mexico in 2008 by the Colombian government for suspected involvement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC.

Education International has repeatedly condemned abuses of teachers' human and trade union rights in Colombia. As part of its campaign to release Beltrán, the organisation has written an open letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and to the Colombian embassy in Belgium, calling for Beltrán's unconditional release.

There has been little evidence to prove Beltrán was breaking any law; prosecutors used scholarly articles to make their case.

"Although my academic activities are not criminal, papers written by me are presented as evidence against me," Beltrán wrote from prison. "It is easy to echo the calls to war. But studying the roots of the social and armed conflicts is a much more complex and dangerous exercise."

In an open letter to his union, the Association of University Professors (APSU), sent from La Picota prison last February, Beltrán wrote: "These violations are reflected in the arbitrary arrests of students, police raids on university campuses, the murder and disappearance of students, threats against university professors, and widespread accusations of rebellion against university members, followed by hasty trials."

Beltrán's case has already garnered hearty support around the world, including petitions organised by the UK-based University and College Union and Justice for Colombia, and Tlaxcala, the international Translators' Network for Linguistic Diversity.

Appeals have also been made by international trade union Labourstart and the Network for Education and Academic Rights, NEAR. Some higher education institutes have also linked into Education International's petition, said its human and trade union rights coordinator Dominique Marlet.

As a sign of the times in the field of petitioning, a growing number of organisations have been going online to reach a broader audience. This appeal is one of Education International's urgent action appeals to mobilise member organisations or individuals through online petitions.

The organisation finds technology helps broaden the scope of petitioning, thus facilitating a more immediate answer, Marlet said. She also hopes to reach out to individual grassroots teachers.

In the past teachers would not write letters of protest, she said. The former system of urgent action appeal requested teacher organisations to write institutional letters of protest in the name of their members.

"With online appeals, individuals feel empowered to take action," she said. "The official letters of protest by teacher organisations continue to be processed in addition to individual online requests."

So far, there has been no final tally of the number of petitioners nor has there been any news about Beltrán's release, Marlet said.

To view the petition to free Beltrán, visit or click here