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Colombia: Demobilization Ruling Thwarts Abuses

Colombia: Court’s Demobilization Ruling Thwarts Future Abuses

Government Must Apply Law 975 in Accordance With Highest Court’s Ruling

(Washington) – The Colombian government could legitimize its paramilitary demobilization process and dismantle the paramilitaries’ complex criminal and financial networks if it implements the process in accordance with a recent Constitutional Court decision, Human Rights Watch said today.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court on Thursday released the full text of its ruling on the constitutionality of Law 975, which offers demobilized paramilitaries reduced sentences for their crimes. The court’s ruling would give prosecutors the tools they need to dismantle paramilitary groups, by conditioning sentence reductions on full confession, disclosure and reparation to victims. It would also dissuade demobilized paramilitaries from reengaging in criminal activities by stripping them of sentence reductions if they commit new crimes.

Government officials have said they will comply with the court’s decision, but have suggested that it might seek ways to avoid applying some aspects of the decision to the paramilitaries. The government is reportedly drafting new regulations for the law, but it is unclear whether those regulations will fully implement the court decision.

“By applying the law in accordance with the court’s decision, the Colombian government would show its commitment to the rule of law and to peace,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “Colombia now has the opportunity to implement a genuine demobilization that dismantles the paramilitaries and protects innocent Colombians in the future.”

Human Rights Watch noted that the ruling had left the benefits for demobilizing paramilitaries largely intact: paramilitaries who comply with the law’s requirements will be eligible for drastically reduced sentences of five to eight years for all their crimes, which include horrific massacres, killings, forced disappearances, kidnappings and extortion. They will also likely be able to avoid extradition to the United States for extensive drug trafficking.

The Constitutional Court’s decision focuses primarily on clarifying the requirements that paramilitaries must fulfill to accede to sentence reductions. For example, the court established that to receive sentence reductions, paramilitaries must make full and truthful confessions, disclose the locations of bodies of the “disappeared,” and pay reparation to their victims with their legal assets, and not just with the illegal assets they choose to disclose.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that these holdings, which correct major problems in the law, should not be controversial, as the Colombian government had repeatedly claimed in the past that it meant to include confession, disclosure, and reparation in the law. Such requirements are also essential to ensure that the process is not simply a farce designed to benefit the paramilitary leadership while leaving their power intact.

The Constitutional Court also held that paramilitaries will lose their sentence reductions if they reengage in criminal activities or fail to comply with other requirements of the law. The court pointed out that it would be impossible to make any contribution to peace if paramilitaries were allowed to keep sentence reductions even while they were committing new crimes.

“By holding that paramilitaries could lose their sentence reductions, the court has finally given them an incentive to stop their illegal activities and dismantle their criminal structures,” said Vivanco. “If the paramilitaries are genuinely demobilizing, they should have no problem with this decision.”

Finally, the court ruling provided that prosecutors must conduct a full investigation of paramilitaries’ crimes before charging them. Human Rights Watch pointed out that such investigations are necessary so the government can understand paramilitaries’ financial and criminal structures and make sure that they are dismantled.

Paramilitaries may seek to evade the court’s ruling by claiming that the law had already been applied to them before the decision, which is not retroactive, was published. But, as Attorney General Mario Iguarán has rightly stated on several occasions, the law has not yet been applied. Even the institutions supposed to implement Law 975 have not been fully established. Instead, since 2003, well before Law 975 was ever drafted or approved, paramilitaries have been going through demobilization ceremonies under another law, Law 782.

“Nobody in Colombia has ever gone through the specialized Law 975 procedures,” said Vivanco. “If the Colombian government is serious about demobilizing the paramilitaries, it will disregard such disingenuous claims and fully adhere to the court’s instructions.”

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