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Colombia Finds Swiss Hostage Mediator Innocent

BOGOTA, Feb 17 2012 (IPS) - The dismissal of charges in Colombia against Swiss mediator Jean-Pierre Gontard, who helped negotiate the release of numerous hostages held by guerrillas in this country between 1998 and 2008, is “magnificent news, for bilateral relations as well as at a purely human level,” Colombia’s ambassador to Switzerland, Claudia Turbay, told IPS.

And Gontard himself said in a telephone conversation with IPS that the legal decision “was worth waiting for.”

“The attorney general’s office investigated my conduct and everything I had done over the course of nearly 10 years, and realised that I carried out my humanitarian work with, of course, the FARC’s trust, but that I do not agree with their methods in the very least,” he said.

The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are the largest rebel group active in this country’s half-decade civil war.

In July 2008, the attorney general’s office of Colombia launched an investigation of Gontard for allegedly transporting ransom money for the FARC and for “complicity” with the left-wing group.

But Nancy Pardo, a prosecutor in the anti-terrorism unit of the attorney general’s office, found no grounds for the accusation and the case against Gontard was dropped.

Pardo’s 46-page decision, which cleared the Swiss envoy of all charges, is dated Jan. 16 and was communicated to the lawyers 11 days later, but did not become public until Wednesday Feb. 15.

Gontard said “There was evidence that I had not overstepped the limits of the mandate of my government, first, or the mandate of the Colombian government, in second place.”

The attorney general’s office concluded that the Swiss mediator “engaged in no illegal conduct” and that the evidence compiled during the investigation showed “that he never acted in benefit of the FARC.”

With respect to relations with the insurgent group, the attorney general’s office determined that Gontard “shared neither their ideas nor their ideology” and that his activities were limited to humanitarian efforts.

In search of peace

The 61-year-old Gontard, former deputy director of the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of Development Studies (IUED), worked for several years for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

He was named by the Swiss and Colombian governments as mediator in negotiations with the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army), a smaller rebel group that also emerged in 1964.

In that capacity, he helped bring about the release of several foreign hostages held by the guerrillas. But his biggest achievement in Colombia, he said, was the role he played in the 2001 release of 357 soldiers and police captured by the FARC in a number of skirmishes, who were swapped for 14 imprisoned guerrillas.

“We negotiated for a year and a half” with the FARC and the government to reach that agreement, he said.

Gontard was first contacted in Geneva in 1998 by emissaries of the FARC and the ELN, who were attending an international meeting on peace in Colombia, in the company of then Colombian foreign minister María Emma Mejía – currently secretary general of the Union of South American Nations.

Gontard said he was surprised at the time that “the FARC knew more about my professional life than my family.”

The Colombian government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) was just then launching peace talks with the insurgent group.

When the talks fell apart in February 2002, the FARC took then presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who holds dual Colombian-French nationality, hostage.

In 2004, Gontard and French envoy Noël Saez were named as facilitators on a mission by Switzerland, France and Spain to negotiate Betancourt’s release.

It was Saez and Gontard who obtained the first proof that Betancourt was still alive.

When Betancourt and other hostages were rescued by the army in July 2008, Gontard and Saez were in the jungle seeking to meet with then FARC chief Alfonso Cano, with authorisation from the Colombian government. (Cano was killed in combat in November 2011.)

The importance of land

Today, Gontard believes that the most important thing happening in Colombia is the implementation of the Victims and Land Restitution Law pushed through Congress by the government of Juan Manuel Santos.

The government estimates that some 360,000 families were forced to flee their land – a total of 6.6 million hectares – since 1991.

The government hopes a total of 13,760 families will be returned to their land this year. The goal set for August 2014, when the Santos administration ends, is for 160,000 land claims to be resolved.

In addition, as a strategy to curb the phenomenon of forced displacement, the government is issuing land titles to families who have no official deed but can show that the land is theirs.

According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), more than five million people have been forcibly displaced in Colombia since 1985.

The Victims and Land Restitution Law is to be in effect for 10 years, as of January 2012. The goal for the next decade is to resolve at least 300,000 land claims.

“If even half of the president’s objective is met, I think many of the guys (guerrillas) who are now in the jungle will perhaps be in a position to sit down at a (negotiating) table and say ‘it was worth it’,” Gontard told IPS.

Because after decades of armed struggle over land, the insurgents could acknowledge that “at last, the poor campesinos (peasants) have returned to their land, or now have titles to good land,” the former mediator said.

“I believe this is the most crucial aspect of what is happening now,” he said.

“I hope that petty political bickering does not conceal the importance of the land problem,” said Gontard. “Colombia is the only country in the Americas that has experienced an agrarian counter-reform process. That has not even happened in Guatemala.”

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