RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Uribe Lashes Out at Sentence for Senior Officer

  • by Constanza Vieira (bogota)
  • Inter Press Service

In his Thursday night televised message, the right-wing president also announced 'new legislation,' among other measures, to provide the military with legal protection. Earlier, he had stated that 'human rights cannot be invoked to commit abuses against the security forces.'

On Wednesday, retired colonel Alfonso Plazas was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the disappearance of 11 people in November 1985, when he led a military assault on the Palace of Justice after it was occupied by the leftist April 19 Movement (M-19) guerrilla group.

Retired military officers slammed the conviction of Plazas as 'legal and political warfare' driven by 'national and international terrorism.'

They also demanded that all cases in which members of the military are implicated fall under the jurisdiction of the military courts.

In 1997, the Constitutional Court ruled that cases involving members of the security forces accused of human rights abuses were to be investigated by the civilian justice system.

Asked about the Plazas verdict, Attorney General Guillermo Mendoza said he did not believe it was 'suitable to discuss cases outside of the legal proceedings,' and added that the outcome of the appeal must be awaited.

The landmark ruling was the first against any of the military officers who led the bloody storming of the courthouse in 1985, although at least three other former army officers face similar charges in the case, including former army commander General Jesús Armando Arias and former army intelligence officers General Ivan Ramírez and Colonel Edilberto Sánchez.

The M-19 (which later became a political party) took over the Palace of Justice on Nov. 6, 1985, seizing some 300 hostages. The military immediately regained control over the lower floors of the courthouse, releasing around 200 hostages.

The result of the military assault was more than 100 people killed or 'disappeared', including civilian hostages, soldiers and 33 guerrillas. Half of the members of the Supreme Court were killed.

The Washington-based National Security Archive noted in a statement Friday that the Truth Commission on the Palace of Justice set up by the Supreme Court said in its final report, released six months ago, that 'there never was a real or effective plan by the national government to try to save the lives of the hostages.'

The court heard the testimony of witnesses who saw or participated in the torture of people who came out of the courthouse alive and were secretly taken to military installations and then 'disappeared'.

The 11 victims of forced disappearance included 10 civilians -- cafeteria staff and visitors to the courthouse -- and one woman guerrilla fighter.

The judge who handed down the sentence, María Stella Jara, began to receive death threats in September, which grew in intensity as the trial date approached.

On Thursday, it was reported that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had ordered precautionary measures on Jun. 2 for the judge and her son.

In its own statement issued Thursday afternoon, the Supreme Court said it 'observed with concern that the decisions of judges and prosecutors have been discredited by other public authorities in deplorable terms, representing a grave danger for the institutions, the survival of the rule of law and the life and physical integrity of officials.'

The Court called 'vigorously for the rest of the branches of the state to show good sense and defend the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and Colombia's judicial system.'

It also urged society to 'defend its institutions' and 'show support for its judges, who form part of the foundations of democracy,' while appealing to the international community for 'support and solidarity' for Colombia's judicial system.

Plazas, who is married to the daughter of then defence minister Miguel Vega, was commander of the Bogota Cavalry School, which spearheaded the assault on the Palace of Justice. President Uribe later appointed him as director of the Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes, Colombia's narcotics control agency, a position he resigned in the midst of a scandal.

'The Colombian authorities tried to bury the truth about the Palace of Justice despite overwhelming evidence that members of the security forces orchestrated the enforced disappearance, torture and execution of some of those inside,' Marcelo Pollack, Amnesty International’s Colombia researcher, said in London.

He added that 'While there has been progress in several high profile criminal investigations into human rights violations committed by the security forces, these have largely been the result of intense international pressure.'

The sentence against Plazas had been 'anxiously' awaited by the families of the victims, René Guarín, the brother of Cristina Guarín -- one of those who came out of the courthouse alive, as shown by a video recording, but then disappeared -- said in a press conference.

'It represents recognition of the struggle waged by those of us who have protested with photos in the Plaza de Bolívar (the main square in Bogotá, where the courthouse is located) for 25 years to demand truth, justice and reparations,' added Guarín, who was forced to flee into exile for several months last year.

Guarín pointed out that Eduardo Umaña, a lawyer who represented the families for the first 13 years, was murdered in 1998.

The group of families said 'President Uribe's remarks were disrespectful towards the judicial branch.'

'We believe the sentence handed down to Colonel Plazas is based in law, does not hurt the integrity of the military, marks a watershed in the history of the fight against impunity, and shows that the country can live up to international standards of justice,' they told the president in a letter.

Amnesty's Pollack said in a statement Friday that 'The government and the military high command’s intemperate and very public criticism of the decision to convict retired colonel Plazas Vega is only the latest of many attempts by the authorities to discredit the judiciary and to derail a key human rights criminal investigation.'

Héctor Jaime Beltrán, whose 30-year-old son, a father of four, is one of the 'disappeared', described what the families are desperately seeking: 'We want them to hand their bodies over to us, regardless of how disintegrated they are, so we can give them a Christian burial.'

Juan Francisco Lanao was one year old when his mother, Gloria Anzola, a lawyer, disappeared after the tragedy. Although he agreed with the sentence handed down to Plazas, he told IPS that 'at the end of the day, it's not going to give us back our loved ones. The feeling is that justice has just started to be done.'

But the verbal attacks on the verdict 'show us that there is still not democracy here. There are individuals who can make use of their influence. A chain of friends, of command, that stands in the way of respect for justice,' he added.

'Thinking in terms of the future, the important thing would be for Colombia to lose its bad reputation of a state tainted by murders and victimisers. There are also good soldiers,' he stressed, 'but justice must be done, in order for society to progress.'

Lanao, who is about to graduate from the university, said justice means 'knowing the truth, to start thinking about reconciliation. If no one is held responsible, we will never arrive at the truth, and reparations are impossible.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service