Colombia: high court upholds indigenous justice

Colombia's Supreme Court of Justice on June 28 nullified an 18-year prison term imposed on one of the country's most renowned indigenous leaders for the detention and flogging of an army soldier who had entered his people's territory in 2008. The ruling ends authorities' 10-year effort to have leader Feliciano Valencia punished for the incident in which indigenous guards of his Nasa people detained, caged and whipped a soldier, according to constitutionally protected indigenous law. The heavily indigenous southern department of Cauca has seen several such incidents in recent years. The decision is seen as a major victory for indigenous autonomy in Colombia.

The Superior Tribunal of Popayan sentenced Valencia to 18 years on kidnapping charges in 2015, a sentence he was allowed to sit out in Nasa territory. According to the prosecutor in Cauca, "men with covered faces holding batons and machetes, accosted the third corporal of the army, Jairo Danilo Chaparral Santiago, and forced him in to a van. In the presence of 400 indigenous people, they beat him and then moved him to a town council building where he was put in a guarded cage, tied up and blindfolded."

Indigenous guards often cover their faces to avoid violent reprisals by actors in the armed conflict. The corporal had apparently entered the indigenous community of La María, Piendamó municipality, disrupting a minga (communal meeting) that was underway.

The Supreme Court overturned the Popayan tribunal ruling, finding that the soldier had falsely accused the indigenous guard of being guerillas and "did not just try to enter their territory, but failed to identify himself adequately, and was carrying war equipment in an offense against the harmony of this community."

The court also found that while flogging "undoubtedly causes pain, its end is not to cause excessive harm, but represents an element of purifying the individual," and "is a ritual used by the community to punish the individual and regain harmony."

Nasa traditional authorities have also sentenced FARC fighters to similar punishment. While the government did not object to that sentence, the United Nations did, questioning the inability to appeal a Nasa verdict. UN representative in Colombia Fabrizio Hochschild said that the indigenous justice process failed to meet international standards. (Colombia Reports, June 29; Semana, El Tiempo, June 28)