Colombia: OAS court rules on Palace of Justice case

On Dec. 10 the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CorteIDH), an agency of the Organization of American States (OAS), notified the Colombian government that the court held it responsible for serious human rights violations in its handling of the seizure of the Palace of Justice by the April 19 Movement (M-19) rebel group on Nov. 6, 1985. The violations included 11 forced disappearances, four cases of torture, one extrajudicial execution and negligence in the investigation of the security forces' retaking of the building one day later, on Nov. 7, an operation in which more than 100 people died, mostly hostages and rebels. The court ordered the Colombian government to pay compensation to the victims, offer a formal and public apology, and produce a documentary explaining what happened.

Apparently the M-19, which demobilized in 1991, planned to use the Palace of Justice takeover to stage a trial of then-president Belisario Betancur (1982–1986) for problems in the government's peace negotiations with the group. Military intelligence was aware of the rebels' plans but failed to provide protection for the building. After a commando of 35 M-19 fighters seized the Palace of Justice, the government refused to hold substantive negotiations. Instead, President Betancur gave military commanders permission to storm the building with soldiers, police and armored vehicles. Almost all of the rebels died in the assault, along with 11 of the 25 justices of the Supreme Court and dozens of other hostages. The building caught on fire and was largely destroyed, as were thousands of court documents.

At the end of the assault, the military seized a group of survivors, including visitors, workers from the cafeteria and one rebel, Irma Franco, calling them "suspects." Franco was killed, and 11 of the survivors have never reappeared. The military also tortured four people, and tortured and then executed a magistrate, Carlos Horacio Urán; his body was placed back in the building to make it appear that he was killed in crossfire. (Colombia Reports, Dec. 10; Univision, Dec. 15; Adital, Brazil, Dec. 17, some from Verdad Abierta;

The government has never accepted its responsibility in the violence. "The judicial institutions…for nearly 30 years have obstructed the investigations, in favor of the perpetrators," Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of the nongovernmental Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), wrote after the decision was released. In recent years the government finally prosecuted two of the top commanders: retired colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega was sentenced in June 2010 to 30 years in prison for his involvement in the case of the 11 people disappeared, and retired general Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales received a 35-year sentence in April 2011 for the disappearances. However, efforts are under way to have Col. Plazas' conviction overturned.

The Colombian government announced that it would comply with the CorteIDF's orders. "If this promise is respected," Krsticevic wrote, "the case of the Palace of Justice will mark a 'before' and 'after' for Colombia." (Semana, Colombia, April 29, 2011; Colombia Reports, Dec. 10; Univision, Dec. 15)

In late December the Colombian government's Unit for Comprehensive Attention and Reparation for Victims of the Armed Conflict issued its first official list of victims from the last 30 years of internal fighting. The agency put the total at 6.8 million, about one-seventh of the country's 48 million inhabitants. Of these, 86% are people who were forcibly displaced, according to the group's director, Paula Gaviria. The remaining 14% are "victims of threats, homicide, forced disappearance; and, in a lower proportion, of kidnapping, sexual violence, plundering or neglect of goods, wounding, torture, forced recruitment of children, and attacks," she said. Gaviria claims that the government is now actively working to return 4.7 million of the displaced to their homes or to compensate them in some other way. About 2.7 million of the victims blamed rebels groups for their victimization, 1.3 million blamed right-wing paramilitaries, 2.9 million didn't assign blame, and only 28,833 blamed government security forces, according to Gaviria, who is a grandchild of former president Betancur. (El Tiempo, Colombia, Dec. 28)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, January 4.