Colombia: impunity in Palace of Justice massacre?

The Colombian government on Feb. 18 denied the disappearances of 11 people during the 1985 Palace of Justice siege, contradicting previous court rulings that held the military responsible. Despite widespread belief to the contrary, the government claimed before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH) that the 11 individuals who remain unaccounted for after 27 years actually died in the fire which consumed the palace. And on Feb. 27, the Prosecutor General called upon the Supreme Court of Justice to officially absolve retired colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega, who had been sentenced in February 2012 to 30 years in connection with the deaths.

On Nov. 6, 1985, 35 M-19 guerrillas burst into the Palace of Justice intending to symbolically put then-President Belisario Betancur on trial. Judges, staff and civilians were taken hostage. More than 100 people later died when the military stormed the building, including 11 of the country’s 25 Supreme Court justices and every one of the guerrillas involved in the attack. Also presumed dead are the 11 citizens thought to have escaped the fire but who then were reportedly “disappeared.” Many suspect the military was responsible for the disappearances, as the 11 victims purportedly had ties to the rebels.

“The missing civilians perished in the fire under the custody of the insurgent group,” wrote Rafael Nieto Loaiza, the government’s lawyer and the former deputy minister of justice. “The alleged violations of the rights [of the disappeared] is due, exclusively, to the actions of the third party.”

The governement’s new stance has met with widespread protest from those previously involved in the case. Said Rafael Barrios Mendivil, lawyer for the victims: “The State’s reponse to the Court is that there were no disappearances…nor was there torture, when [actually] the proof is conclusive…” Added Angela Maria Buitrago, the case’s original prosecutor:  “To deny the disappearances is like denying that the courthouse was on fire.” 

The CIDH sued Colombia in 2012 for negligence in prosecuting those responsible and for failing to adequately search for the disappeared. In July, the Court is slated to make an official desicion. (AP, Caracol Radio, Feb. 27; Colombia Reports, Feb. 19)