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Whither political asylum? – The case of Joaquín Pérez Becerra

31/05/11

Joaquín Pérez Becerra“The term “refugee” shall apply to any person who … owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and …is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”. (Article 1 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees)

The facts surrounding the recent arrest in Venezuela and subsequent extrajudicial ‘rendition’ to Colombia of the journalist Joaquín Pérez Becerra are disturbing in the extreme.

Colombian-born Becerra was travelling on a Swedish passport when, on arrival at Venezuela’s Maiquetía airport on April 23, he was immediately detained and held for a period of somewhere in the region of 48 hours before being handed over to the Colombian authorities.

Not only does what happened to Becerra amount to clear contravention of the spirit and letter of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – notwithstanding the remarkable advances made by the Venezuelan Revolution, it also calls into question the trajectory of this process, in particular that of its foreign policy.

That Colombian-born Becerra was entitled to the full protection of the Venezuelan government is indisputable – Becerra was given political asylum in Sweden in 1994 and became a Swedish citizen in 2000.

That he was not protected and was in fact ‘extradited’ to Colombia by the Chávez administration is unforgivable.

Why was Becerra targeted by the Colombian regime? Why was he of such importance that Colombian President Santos called Hugo Chávez personally to request his extradition while Becerra was in the air en route to Venezuela? Colombian government-inspired speculation about Becerra’s involvement with the FARC-EP aside, what we do know is that he was considered a dangerous adversary of the Colombian regime because of his past involvement in the Union Patriótica (UP), and more importantly, because of the more recent role that his ANNCOL New Colombia News Agency has carried out in exposing and condemning the abuses and injustices of the Colombian state.

The events that led to Becerra fleeing Colombia are directly related to the murderous assault unleashed by the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies on the UP political formation to which Becerra belonged and represented as a councillor in the early 1990s. For taking a ‘political’ (as opposed to armed) stand against the Colombian oligarchy both Becerra personally, and many, many others in the UP paid dearly - Becerra himself lost his wife, and the UP lost an estimated approximately 5,000 activists, including two presidential candidates, eight congressmen, 11 mayors, 13 deputies and 70 councillors.

It is for this reason that Becerra fled Colombia and was granted political asylum and it is for this reason that he should never have been returned to that country.

It is no surprise that the Colombian regime would seek to pursue and persecute someone who has challenged and offered a counterpoint to the mainstream media code of silence that tries to mask the real nature of the Colombian conflict. What is surprising however and has rightly invoked the wrath of many of the Venezuelan Revolution’s most ardent supporters is that Hugo Chávez’s administration would actually facilitate Colombian demands for Becerra’s ‘extradition’.

The question that many have quite correctly raised relates to why Venezuela would accede to such a demand at all?

Unión Patriótica (UP)Those sent out to bat for Chávez in the aftermath of Becerra’s rendition to Colombia have justified what happened by stating that there was an Interpol “red notice” against his name. This defence does not stand up to the rigors of even the most cursory scrutiny. A “red notice” requires that the individual in question be detained only with a view to extradition. A question that immediately begs answering is why this red notice was not acted upon in Sweden, or in Germany where Becerra changed planes en route to Caracas? Might it be the case that there was in fact no such ‘red notice’ issued against Becerra? Its existence is contested and there is no mention of it on Interpol’s website.

Notwithstanding the question as to whether this notice actually ever existed, there is still the issue of Venezuela’s blatant disregard for Becerra’s refugee status, Swedish citizenship and due process with regard to extradition. Extradition is an act of such seriousness that it is almost universally preceded by a lengthy legal process. In this case, however, ‘extradition’ to Colombia was effected in less than two days without Becerra even being allowed access to legal representation.

The justification proffered by Venezuela is most certainly unsatisfactory in terms of explaining how it came to pass that a Swedish passport-holding political refugee from Colombia’s dirty war came to find himself arrested on arrival in revolutionary Venezuela at the direct behest of Colombian president Santos and ‘extradited’ within 48 hours to Colombia without due legal process having been observed.

What else then, if anything, has changed of late in the Venezuela-Colombia relationship to have facilitated such a situation? It is certainly not as if Chávez et al. aren’t familiar with the nature of the Colombian state and the manner in which it treats those, such as in the case of the UP, who would dare to assert their legitimate right to argue for an alternative political dispensation to that which exists under the US-allied oligarchy.

Was it not Chávez, after all, who once described Colombia as “a terrorist state”? Didn’t he once also liken Colombia to the “fist of the Empire”? Given the atrocity and scandal tainted defence minister role played by current Colombian president Santos in the previous Uribe administration, it is fanciful to suggest that Chávez actually believes that a new day has dawned in Colombian politics and in the history of Venezuela-Colombia relations.

There is, however, evidence to suggest that Venezuela and Colombia are currently engaged in an incipient détente-type process whereby, notwithstanding the fact that both countries have clearly differing objectives, each recognises the need for a period where they can attend to their own respective agendas without having to deal with the constant threat of crisis/hostilities breaking out. It has been argued by some defenders of the Venezuelan Revolution that the rendering of Becerra and the FARC-EP and ELN activists previously handed over by Venezuela to Colombia are ‘unfortunate’ but necessary casualties of this tension-reduction arrangement.

In this regard it has furthermore been suggested that Joaquín Pérez Becerra was, in fact, part of a ‘swap’ deal agreed between Venezuela and Colombia whereby on receipt of Becerra (or similar revolutionary figure(s) in the context of a Venezuelan commitment to ongoing ‘counter terrorism’ measures i.e. a clampdown on alleged FARC-EP and ELN activists) that Colombia would hand over the Venezuelan narco-trafficker Walid Makled. The fact both that Colombia had agreed in principle in November 2010 to extradite Makled to Venezuela as opposed to the US (where his extradition was also requested), and that Makled was subsequently extradited to Venezuela after the rendition of Becerra lends further weight to the belief that this type of quid pro quo arrangement existed. That Makled had previously made allegations of corruption and complicity in drug trafficking against members of Chávez’s administration makes the suggestion that Becerra was sacrificed as part of an exchange designed to shut Makled up all the more sinister, and if true, reprehensible.

Whatever about the actual motivation of Venezuela in all of this, it is clear that this incident has marked an unexpected, unhelpful and further-rightward, regressive turn in Venezuelan foreign policy. There is no other way to describe a situation defined as it is by such wholesale disregard for internationally established conventions on extradition and political asylum, and moreover, the indefensible handing over to the forces of reaction in Colombia a man who has struggled against and suffered terribly at the hands of that very same reaction.

The case of Joaquín Pérez Becerra represents a regrettable and worrying stain against the reputation of the Venezuelan Revolution and a further complication and challenge to those who struggle against the Colombian oligarchy.

 

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