Colombia: army colonel gets 30 years for Palace of Justice disappearances

Retired Colombian army colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega was sentenced to 30 years in prison June 9 for his role in the forced disappearance of 11 civilians in the 1985 army siege of the Palace of Justice, which had been taken over by M-19 guerrillas. The Bogotá judge stated that although Vega did not directly commit the crimes, he was the commander of the military during the raid and was therefore responsible for the actions of his men. Vega was found to have ordered the 11 civilians who escaped from the besieged building to a nearby military school, after which they disappeared.

Families of the victims expressed joy at the “historic verdict that contributes to the establishment of truth and justice.” Amnesty International also praised the ruling, calling it a victory over that nation’s military courts, which have sought jurisdiction over similar cases in order to protect former army officials from prosecution. Plazas Vega’s defense team announced they would appeal the verdict.

The Palace of Justice siege is one of the bloodiest episodes in Colombia’s history. The 1985 conflict began when left-wing rebels took judges hostage in the Palace of Justice and planned to stage a political trial of then-president Belisario Betancur. More than 100 people were killed as the army battled guerillas to take the palace on Nov. 6 and 7, including 11 of the country’s 25 Supreme Court justices, all the guerrillas involved in the attack, and, presumably, the eleven disappeared civilians. The 27-hour assault left the palace burned to the ground.

More than 20,000 people have disappeared over the past 30 years of internal conflict in Colombia. In October, Colombian prosecutor Luis González said that at least 27,384 civilians disappeared between 1988 and 2002, with nearly 75% of these attributed to illegal right-wing paramilitaries. The government’s Justice and Peace Office compiled the list after a three-year investigation of forced disappearances that included testimonies of the relatives of the missing persons. (Jurist, June 10; Colombia Reports, June 9)

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