Colombia: investigate “misuse” of Red Cross insignia

The Colombian government should ensure an independent investigation into misuse of the Red Cross emblem by security forces during the July 2 hostage rescue operation, Human Rights Watch said Aug. 7. A videotape made public Aug. 4 shows a soldier wearing a vest displaying the Red Cross emblem before the operation started. In response to images shown earlier of the soldier wearing the emblem during the operation, President Álvaro Uribe had said use of the emblem was a last-minute improvisation by a soldier, and not part of the plan. The new videotape contradicts those claims, suggesting that the Red Cross was deliberately misused from the start, in violation of Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions.

“The Colombian government said the hostage rescue operation was carefully planned to the last detail, so it needs to explain why the Red Cross emblem was misused,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The misuse of the emblem can make it much harder for humanitarian workers to fulfill their crucial role of protecting civilians, and can even put their lives at risk. It’s very important that an independent investigation be conducted to determine who in the chain of command knew or should have known about the misuse of the emblem.” (ReliefWeb, Aug. 7)

the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is also calling for a probe into what it calls the Colombian government’s apparent “intentional misuse” of the emblem. “If authenticated, these images would clearly establish an improper use of the Red Cross emblem, which we deplore,” said ICRC deputy director of operations Dominik Stillhart. (BBC, Aug. 6)

Meanwhile, a US District Court in Washington DC indicted FARC guerrilla commander Hely Mejía Mendoza AKA Martín Sombra Aug. 8 for his alleged participation in the kidnapping of three Pentagon-contracted intelligence agents after their plane crashed in rebel territory in 2003. A fourth US contractor, Thomas J. Janis, and a Colombian sergeant were slain by the guerillas. The three captives, Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, were among those rescued in July. Until his capture by Colombian forces earlier this year, Mejía allegedly handled the FARC’s finances, commanded units and trained fighters. (WP, Aug. 2)

The Justice Department named six other FARC figures as under investigation in connection with the kidnapping, although two of them are now dead: the guerilla organization’s supreme commander Manuel Marulanda Vélez and second-in-command Edgar Devia Silva AKA Raúl Reyes. The other four are Jorge Briceño Suárez AKA Mono Jojoy, Carlos Alberto García, Yurley Capera Quezada and Pedro Gonzalez Perdomo. A $5 million reward is being offered for information leading to their capture.

Arrested by Colombia’s National Police in February outside Bogotá, Martín Sombra was named by the Justice Department as “the jailer” of the three captured US contractors. He faces a total of seven charges related to the capture, including criminal association, use of a firearm in a criminal act, and material support to terrorism. Under US law he could face life imprisonment, but the maximum under Colombian law is 60 years—which Bogotá insists Washington respect for its extradited nationals. (AP via Univision, Aug. 5)

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