Why Is Colombia Cracking Down On A Chocolate Thief?

Justice is twisted in a country where a man is jailed for stealing candy from a store, while gangsters and corrupt politicians are always able to negotiate prison reductions.

With all of Colombia's problems ...
With all of Colombia's problems ...

BOGOTA — If you are in Colombia, you may have seen the name Luis Augusto Mora. Newspapers around the country have featured reports about this man, jailed for five months after stealing some chocolate candy from a store in a middle-class Bogotá district.

Mora is now serving his sentence in the capital's prison La Picota. It really makes you wonder how Colombia's judiciary system applies the country's penal code. In terms of the level of threat an offender poses, there seems to be no proportion, whatsoever, between crime and punishment.

Unlike well-known paramilitary chiefs, Mora had no accomplice to testify against to the authorities. He had no weapons to hand over or any heinous crime to confess. He had nothing to negotiate with prosecutors, no valuable information on the criminal activities of contractors working with the State, or friends among politicians versed in the art of deceit.

That means Mora couldn't seek a prosecution waiver or obtain house arrest.

As he wasn't the head of a cartel — except, perhaps, the "Death-by-Chocolate" one — Mora shared the luck of all those who, with nothing left but the integrity or irrelevance of their acts to defend them, face a judiciary system ill-equipped to treat relatively harmless people with less severity.

A system built for criminals

This case shows us one thing. In Colombia, only those whose criminal careers run on death, trickery and corruption can hope to receive a better treatment from a penal system that is designed for constant compromise.

Within the system runs the idea that negotiating with criminals can help find "the truth." Yet many cases — Bogotá"s fraudulent city contracts being among them — have shown that the truth becomes more and more elusive as the case proceeds.

If Mora survives his time in one of Colombia"s most overcrowded prisons, he will be out in December. What we'll see in our streets, then, won't be the head of a feared cartel — it will be a man whose hopes of social rehabilitation have faded. Why not, since state prosecutors aren't using chocolate addiction as a bargaining chip?

It is even more troubling to think about the thousands of Colombians who face prosecution for charges they're not guilty of. These are people who, unlike Mora, were not even caught with their hand in the cookie jar. They have nothing to confess — nor do they have any hope of a "deal" worthy of its name.

These are profound injustices, and should make us reflect on the type of penal code we really need.

Both President Juan Manuel Santos and his opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, have spoken about urgent judiciary reforms during this year's presidential campaign. Yet they did so by referring to the mechanics of judges' selections, by talking about courts to prosecute the powerful or the Inspectorate's powers to penalize politicians. These are certainly important measures, but no less important than how the law affects ordinary citizens.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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