BOGOTA, Colombia, June 14 (Reuters) - The Colombian government said on Tuesday it would toughen its proposal for disbanding far-right paramilitary militias to ensure they pay for their crimes, after pressure from the U.S. Congress.
The move followed criticism by human rights groups, the United Nations and key U.S. lawmakers who said the draft bill did little to ensure paramilitaries would dismantle cocaine smuggling organizations after turning in their uniforms.
"We want them to be at peace with this," Colombian Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt told Reuters, referring to the bill's critics. "I will go to the United States as soon as possible to explain the whole project."
The government is in peace talks with the far-right United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. The outlawed group, which has about 15,000 men under arms, evolved from militias formed in the 1980s by land owners and cocaine dealers trying to protect their property from Marxist rebels.
The law would apply to future demobilizations of the rebels as well, should they ever enter negotiations.
Critics of the current draft of the bill say it would let the paramilitaries, guilty of some of the worse massacres in Colombia's 41-year guerrilla war, get away with murder.
Demobilized fighters would face up to eight years in jail but face no additional penalties for failing to disclose information about their criminal networks to investigators.
Key Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers have warned support from Washington could be jeopardized if the bill does not ensure the illegal groups are put out of business.
REAL OR COSMETIC CHANGES?
The United States has provided more than $3 billion in aid since 2000 to help Colombia fight its huge cocaine trade, which is exploited by both the paramilitaries and the rebels.
Sabas Pretey did not say what changes he would make to the bill. But a congressional ally of the government, who asked not to be named, said it would withhold leniency from demobilized paramilitary or rebel fighters who lie to investigators.
Regardless of any last minute amendments, Colombia's Congress should approve the bill before the current legislative session ends later this month.
Conservative Party Congressman Santiago Castro said it will be impossible to please human rights groups while offering enough benefits to the paramilitaries to keep them at the negotiating table.
"We are not dealing with defeated armies. We are dealing with standing armies," Castro said. "So we are not going to be able to impose every condition that the public, both in Colombia and internationally, wants."
The Colombian government is also considering doubling the time given to investigate the crimes committed by demobilized fighters to 60 days. The draft gives investigators one month.
"Even if they double the period to 60 days, it is unlikely that it will be considered long enough to investigate crimes that may be crimes against humanity," said Sergio Jaramillo, director of the Bogota think tank Ideas for Peace, funded by Colombian businesses.
Other observers remained skeptical as well.
"These could all be cosmetic changes," said Maria McFarland, Colombia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "We would like to see real changes that would require confession and the turning over of illegally gained assets, with effective penalties for failure to do so."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet