Colombia: Bill leaves paramilitary structures intact

Congress Should Amend Draft Law to Require Confession and Genuine Demobilization

(Washington, June 15, 2005) - The draft law for the demobilization of paramilitary groups that the Colombian Congress began to debate this afternoon would leave the underlying structures of those groups intact, Human Rights Watch said today.

The bill drastically limits time frames for investigation of paramilitaries' crimes, thus making it nearly impossible to hold paramilitaries accountable for them. Even if convicted, paramilitary commanders could get away with serving as little as two years for all their crimes, without having to confess, fully disclose their knowledge of the criminal networks they run, or even turn over all their massive illegally acquired wealth.

"The current bill does little but serve the interests of paramilitary leaders: it doesn't touch their mafia-like networks or the wealth that fuels their groups' activities," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "It is a bad deal both for Colombians and the international community, and it sets a disastrous precedent for future negotiations with other armed groups."

The office of Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace announced on June 14 that it would seek some amendments to the bill, in response to concerns expressed by several U.S. senators in recent letters to President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. However, the text of those amendments has yet to be made public.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the amendments might be only superficial changes that fail to address the bill's serious problems. The organization called on the Colombian Congress to make five essential changes to the bill:

- First, entirely eliminate provisions that (1) force prosecutors to bring all charges within 24 hours after receiving statements from demobilized individuals and (2) limit the time for investigation to 30 days after charges are brought. Such limitations in the time for investigation will virtually guarantee impunity, as most cases will either be closed or will result in acquittals.

- Second, in exchange for sentence reductions, paramilitary commanders should be required to give a full and truthful confession and to fully disclose their knowledge of their groups' operational structure, sources of financing and illegally acquired assets. Otherwise, it will be practically impossible for the government to obtain the necessary information to uncover the truth about atrocities and dismantle these groups.

- Third, the bill should provide that paramilitaries will lose all their sentencing benefits if they are found to have lied to the authorities about their crimes, operations and finances, or to have kept illegally acquired assets. This provision is necessary to ensure that the requirements of turnover of assets, confession and disclosure of information are meaningful.

- Fourth, top paramilitary commanders should be barred from receiving sentencing benefits through "individual" demobilization until the troops they command fully demobilize and cease engaging in atrocities. This provision is essential to ensure the credibility of the process.

- Fifth, the time paramilitary leaders have spent negotiating should not be considered as time served on their sentences.

"If the Congress really wants to dismantle these complex groups, it must make some real changes, not merely cosmetic ones," said Vivanco. "But if the Congress approves the current version of the bill, it will condemn Colombia to the continued control and violence of paramilitary mafias."

Colombia's paramilitary coalition is on the U.S. Department of State's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Many top paramilitary commanders have been requested in extradition by the U.S. government for drug trafficking. In 2002, these commanders initiated demobilization negotiations with the Colombian government in the hope of avoiding extradition and lengthy U.S. prison terms.

Paramilitary commanders are responsible for ordering countless massacres, targeted killings, forced disappearances, and acts of torture and extortion over the course of the last two decades. The troops they command are paid and financed through complex drug-trafficking operations and other illegal activities. Because of the groups' enormous wealth, individual paramilitary troops are easily replaced with new recruits, and paramilitary commanders enjoy political influence in much of the country.

In January, Human Rights Watch called on international donors to condition support for the demobilization process on Colombia's enactment of a law that could effectively dismantle paramilitary groups and ensure accountability for atrocities. Both European Union and U.S. government representatives have publicly taken similar positions.

At an international donors' conference in Cartagena in February, the administration of President Uribe unveiled a bill that took steps toward addressing the concerns raised by the international community, although it was still seriously flawed. After the conference, however, the government scrapped that draft law and replaced it with a different proposal. The new version of the bill is thoroughly inconsistent with the standards set forth by international donors. The bill is now before the full Congress for final approval.


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