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Colombia rejects HRW criticism on military justice reform

posted by Adriaan Alsema

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Juan Carlos Esguerra

Colombia insisted Tuesday it would expand the use of military tribunals despite warnings from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the proposed reform “threatens to facilitate impunity for military abuses.”

Colombia’s Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra said in a press release that the government will maintain the proposal and that the government will not change legislative procedures “to accomodate” HRW.

HRW says the proposal, that all abusive acts by members of the military are presumed to be related to service and should thus be dealt with by tribunals, directly contradicts both Colombian and international law, and would “dramatically reverse” progress made in investigating human rights violations.

In a press conference this week in Washington following the release of HRW’s World Report 2012, its Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco said the proposal to expand military tribunals was the organization’s main concern regarding Colombia this year.

Esguerra said, “The government formed a commission of civilian experts, retired military personnel, retired police officials, people who know the subject of military justice, to look at the military justice system, the criminal courts, criminal justice and the military penal code with a worldly view. They will determine in due time and with wisdom how to integrate their work into the judicial reform bill.”

The Colombian government had already written to Vivanco responding to HRW’s concerns, Esguerra added.

According to HRW, the very structure of the military justice system, comprised as it is of active or former members of the security services, “fundamentally inhibits it from independently and impartially administering justice for cases of human rights violations”. Colombia’s military justice system had long failed to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, said Vivanco last month.

Colombia’s military tribunals came under fire in 2008 when a scandal broke over the extrajudicial killings of civilians by members of the military. Following the controversy, media revealed dozens of cases where military courts had unjustly absolved soldiers involved in human rights abuses.

Colombia’s highest criminal court and highest administrative court have both withdrawn their support for the proposed justice system reform because it hands too much power to the government, they claim, and amounts to an “attack on the structure of the democratic state.”

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