Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: International Criminal Court Scrutinises Paramilitary Crimes

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Aug 27 2008 (IPS) - The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor ended a three-day visit to Colombia Wednesday, where he has been investigating who is ultimately responsible for the human rights crimes committed in this civil war-torn country.

In the scenario of Colombia’s internal armed conflict, where “we have an enormous number of crimes and a massive number of criminals,” the criteria being followed is “to go after the people who may be considered among those most responsible,” ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in Bogotá during his three-day visit to the country this week.

In Colombia’s decades-long civil war, appalling human rights crimes are committed by all sides: the leftist guerrillas who took up arms in 1964, the security forces and the far-right paramilitary militias.

But the latter, whose leaders are drug traffickers or have ties to the drug trade, are blamed by the United Nations for 80 percent of all killings, while the insurgents are held responsible for 12 percent and the security forces are blamed for the rest.

Some say today’s paramilitary groups emerged in the early 1980s, when drug traffickers turned landholders organised private militias to combat the guerrillas, who had started kidnapping wealthy landowners and their family members.

But others say the extreme-rightwing groups were created to do the dirty work in the counterinsurgency war when Colombia’s international image began to be hurt by the widespread human rights abuses committed by the security forces.

In any case, the paramilitaries worked closely with the authorities, according to numerous rulings against the Colombian state handed down by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

This is the second visit to Colombia by Moreno-Ocampo, an Argentine lawyer who first gained renown outside his country for his work as assistant to prosecutor Julio César Strassera, in the 1985 trial that convicted nine members of the military junta that ruled Argentina during the 1976-1983 dictatorship for crimes against humanity.

Moreno-Ocampo’s first visit was in October 2007, when he announced that he had been keeping a file on Colombia for the past three years.

He also said he was closely following the judicial processes held under the Peace and Justice Law, which governs the partial paramilitary demobilisation process negotiated behind closed doors with the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe.

The Peace and Justice Law offers legal benefits, like short sentences, to paramilitaries who provide full information about their crimes and make reparations to their victims.

The ICC, based in The Hague, was set up to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in cases where countries directly connected with such crimes are not able or willing to carry out prosecutions themselves.

The ICC prosecutor’s visit to Colombia coincided with a growing uproar around what has been dubbed the “parapolitics” scandal, in which the public prosecutor’s office and the Supreme Court have arrested or are investigating some 70 legislators – nearly all of them Uribe allies – for alleged ties with paramilitary groups.

The Supreme Court investigates and tries sitting members of Congress, while the public prosecutor’s office brings former lawmakers to justice.

One of the latest developments in the ongoing scandal is the removal of senior regional prosecutor Guillermo Valencia, the brother of Interior and Justice Minister Fabio Valencia, for alleged ties with “Don Mario”, a fast-rising drug kingpin and paramilitary chief.

But the underlying battle involves repeated, veiled government attacks on the Supreme Court, especially associate Justice Iván Velásquez, the Court’s chief investigator in the parapolitics scandal.

Witnesses who accused Velásquez of trying to dig up evidence to implicate President Uribe in the scandal, but later confessed that they were pressured or deceived into doing so, are feeding the spiral of the “clash of powers.”

So is last Sunday’s news that two senior executive branch officials have held meetings over the past year, in the presidential palace, with emissaries sent by a druglord who claimed he had evidence to undermine Justice Velásquez.

Just before Moreno-Ocampo’s visit, the issue heated up when the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Francisco Ricaurte, referred to “a strange alliance,” in which the government and the paramilitaries were making common cause against the Supreme Court.

Ricaurte repeated what he said several months ago: “There is a plot against the Supreme Court to discredit its magistrates and undermine the legitimacy of the reports of wrongdoing.”

“There is a plot here. The public prosecutor’s office should investigate,” said Velásquez himself.

Prosecutors who have been taking the confessions of demobilised paramilitaries under the provisions of the Peace and Justice Law have all been threatened, as have the magistrates of the Supreme Court’s criminal chamber.

And in the meantime, Interior and Justice Minister Valencia is pushing for changes in the justice system which could limit the power of the Supreme Court to investigate and try legislators implicated in the scandal, and for political reforms that would only go into effect shortly before the current legislature ends in 2010, thus prolonging the status quo.

Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), said the ICC should be alerted to how the politicians caught up in the scandal “have begun to be absolved.”

Among those implicated in the scandal is Mario Uribe, the president’s cousin and close political ally, who stepped down as senator to avoid being investigated by the Supreme Court and to fall instead under the jurisdiction of the public prosecutor’s office, which is headed by a former deputy minister of the current government, Mario Iguarán.

Before being arrested in April, Mario Uribe attempted to seek political asylum in the Costa Rican Embassy.

The Supreme Court began to investigate him in July 2007 for allegedly receiving support from the paramilitaries in his election campaign and for the purchase of 5,000 hectares of land reportedly acquired by means of threats against the owners.

But the former senator was released from prison on Aug. 20 after the public prosecutor’s office said there was insufficient evidence to hold him.

And although the investigation of Mario Uribe continues, it is not including a 2000 land deal with one of the paramilitary chiefs extradited to the United States on drug charges in May, according to the Bogota magazine Semana.

Three other former lawmakers who quit Congress have also been released from prison in the last few weeks, after witness testimony was dismissed by the public prosecutor’s office.

“The government coalition is made up of parties whose leadership has been implicated in the parapolitics scandal. The parties’ presidents are under prosecution, and between 30 and 70 percent of the votes the parties won are compromised because the legislators are either on trial or in jail,” former minister Camilo González Posso, the head of the Institute for Peace and Development (INDEPAZ), told IPS.

This is “a governing coalition that has won power by the use of violence. They share the responsibility for the appalling crimes for which the paramilitaries are being tried,” he added.

“How will impunity be avoided, and what kind of reparations will be demanded of the ‘parapoliticians’ who contributed to murders, massacres and the forced displacement of three million people in Colombia?” asked González Posso, alluding to the provisions of the Peace and Justice Law.

The same questions are being asked by the ICC prosecutor, according to a letter to the Colombian government from Moreno-Ocampo, dated Jun. 18 but kept secret until Aug. 15, when it was published by the Bogota daily El Nuevo Siglo.

“How will the trial of those most responsible for crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC, including political leaders and members of Congress presumably linked to demobilised groups, be ensured?” asked Moreno-Ocampo.

“The parapolitics scandal is a key issue for us, because those who are ultimately responsible should be tried and convicted,” he added in the letter.

Cepeda pointed out to IPS that since the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, went into force in July 2002, elections have been held in Colombia “in which mechanisms of armed pressure and territorial control were used, which can be linked to crimes against humanity.”

IPS learned that the ICC prosecutor is not pleased with the fact that the legislators investigated in the parapolitics scandal are accused only of conspiracy to commit crimes, with aggravating circumstances, and not of crimes against humanity.

One possibility is that the most heavily implicated legislators will be sentenced in Colombia on charges of conspiracy to commit crimes, and could face possible prosecution before the ICC for crimes against humanity.

“Parapolitics is the main front in the struggle today in Colombia,” said Cepeda.

“The possibility of a way forward to democracy depends on how this struggle between hopes for impunity versus the search for truth and justice in the parapolitics cases plays out,” he said.

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  • Christopher

    I see that you state that the UN released statistics on annual deaths in Colombia, do you have an original transcript or other source?

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