Colombia: Lesbian Inmate Subjected to Punitive Sanctions and Inhuman Treatment, In Response to Petition Claiming Her Rights

A lesbian prisoner in Colombia has petitioned against discriminatory enforcement of a conjugal-visitation policy in that country's prison system, which allows such visits to heterosexual prisoners but denies them to homosexuals. In response to her petition, she has been separated from her partner and moved to a men's facility, where she is being held in degrading conditions that violate international standards for the treatment of persons in detention. IGLHRC calls for letters demanding an end to this punitive treatment. IGLHRC calls on on the Colombian government to move the prisoner and her partner to the same institution; to place them in conditions compatible with international law and with their human dignity; and to enter into good-faith negotiations with the petitioner, rather than delaying or evading them.

IGLHRC calls for letters to be sent urgently to the following authorities, demanding:

  1. The immediate transfer of Marta Alvarez to a women's or a District facility, offering the minimum guarantees which the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, as well as other international standards, mandate as due to her human dignity and her particular condition as a woman serving a long-term sentence.
  2. An end to harassment against Marta Alvarez based on her sexual orientation, as well as to punitive measures directed against her without allowing her the right to defense or appeal, and to the vindictive measures related to the exercise of her right to petition. Transfers from one facility to another must no longer be used to punish her for her lawful pursuit of a conclusive resolution to her claim.
  3. That authorities place Marta Alvarez and her lover, who will be referred to here by her initials, "GA." in the same prison, relieving the grave effects that a long-term sentence has upon the psychological and moral integrity of a person deprived of her freedom.
  4. That the government immediately begin negotiating with the petitioners, and demonstrate its intent to achieve a friendly settlement for the case, attempting in good faith to solve the conflicts through negotiation.

Please send your letters to:

Rómulo González Trujillo
Ministro de Justicia
Ministerio de Justicia
Avenida Jiménez 8-89
Bogotá, Colombie
Laureano Villamizar
Director del Instituto Penitenciario y Carcelario INPEC
Ministerio de Justicia
Avenida Jiménez 8-89
Bogotá, Colombie
Andrés Pastrana
Presidente de Colombia
Palacio de Nariño
Bogotá, Colombie


On May 18 1996, Marta Lucia Alvarez Giraldo--a lesbian serving a sentence in the Colombian penitentiary system--presented to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (ICHR) a petition against the Republic of Colombia. The petition alleged that Colombia had violated her rights as laid forth Articles 5 (1) (2), 11 (1) and 24 of the American Convention on Human Rights. Her claim is supported by the Colombian Women's Network, CEJIL (Center for Justice and International Law), IGLHRC, and the IHRLG (International Human Rights Law Group)

Marta asserted that her personal integrity, dignity and equality were affected by prison authorities' refusal to allow her to receive conjugal visits from her partner, an inmate of the same prison--a denial predicated on her sexual orientation. The Colombian government allows conjugal visits to heterosexual prisoners within its prison system, but claims that allowing such visits to homosexuals would affect the prisons' internal disciplinary system, and that the grounds for restriction are justified by local mores, claiming that intolerance of homosexual practices is deeply rooted in Latin American culture.

On one occasion, the Colombian Government --through a report submitted by the Ministry of Justice to the ICHR--acknowledged that Marta Alvarez is being treated in an inhuman and discriminatory manner.

On May 1999, the ICHR admitted its competence in the case, based on Article 11 (2) of the Interamerican Convention, according to which no one can be subjected to arbitrary or abusive interferences in his or her private life. Following the ICHR's advice, both parties decided to try reaching a friendly settlement, but until the present day all efforts to bring the Colombian government to the table and start the talks have failed.

In the meantime, however, the Colombian government has imposed sanctions upon Marta which far exceed the necessary conditions of fulfilling a long-term sentence. On October 21st, Marta was transferred from the Bucaramanga Women's Prison to El Socorro Circuit Jail, and separated from Her new place of detention is a men's facility where she is been subjected to inhuman conditions. In her own words: " The jail gets wet when it rains, humidity and bad smells are unbearable. There is no drinking water; all cleaning has to be done with a brownish, muddish water ä There are no phones; lack of communication is killing me. I don't know anybody here and nobody comes to visit ä They never let me go into the courtyard ä I pray for rain so I can collect some water for my bath and for washing my clothesä".

Marta's emotional situation is highly delicate. On December 1 she was visited by officers of the Bucaramanga Regional Ombudsman's Office who reported: "The inmate rarely sleeps and is taking tranquilizers (Equanil and Alparasolam) supplied by the jail's doctor."

Transferring her to another facility is a measure that has been frequently used against Marta Alvarez in response to her assertion of her rights, and in an apparent reaction to her sexual orientation. The day after she submitted the request for conjugal visits by her female lover, the director of the Pereira Prison --where she was then detained--demanded her transfer to Anserma Circuit Jail, and the day after the High Court verdict on her case, she was effectively transferred. Later she was transferred from the Women's Prison in Bogota for her public defense of human rights and the rights of homosexual inmates; the same happened in Bucaramanga Women's Prison where the other factor motivating her transfer was her relationship with GA. Marta has been kept in nine facilities since October 1996.

Marta Alvarez and GA have been together for 20 months, since when they first met at Cali Women's Prison. They have already been transferred together to two facilities (Pamplona and Bucaramanga). They have shared courtyard, corridor and cell without in any way infringing upon security conditions that are mandatory for prison facilities.

Despite efforts by her lawyer, Marta Tamayo, to secure her transfer to a women's facility where conditions of detention are dignified and human, the prisoner remains subjected to these punitive and vindictive measures. The question of her place of detention has now reached international authorities: a request to secure her immediate transfer to a women's facility has been submitted to the ICHR on December 13.

All international and Interamerican human rights covenants,virtually without exception, echo the language of Article 10, paragraph 1 of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights): "All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person."

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has further explained that "prisoners may not be subjected to any hardship or constraint other than that resulting from the deprivation of liberty; respect for the dignity of such persons must be guaranteed under the same conditions as for that of free persons. Persons deprived of their liberty enjoy all the rights set forth in the [ICCPR], subject to the restrictions that are unavoidable in a closed environment." These rights include the right to petition for redress without fear of retaliation or further punishment.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners require, as their basic principle, that, within detention, "There shall be no discrimination on grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status."