Human Rights Experts Condemn Extradition of Paramilitary Leaders

News from Colombia | on: Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Human rights experts have condemned the Colombian regime for yesterday's out of the blue extradition of fourteen paramilitary leaders to the United States. The paramilitary leaders, in Colombian prisons following a supposed demobilisation of the right-wing groups under a 2005 "Justice and Peace Law", had been testifying about crimes they had committed and had started to give details on joint actions carried out by paramilitary groups and Colombian army units as well as the names of politicians who had helped them.

According to the paramilitaries and their defenders, the war crimes were committed against "subversives", people who collaborated with the leftist guerrilla groups that emerged in the 1960s.

Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MOVICE), said the extraditions would "seriously affect" the rights of survivors, and said they were aimed at keeping the paramilitary leaders from continuing to provide the names of military, political and business accomplices and allies.

Among those extradited were several top leaders, such as Rodrigo Tovar, alias "Jorge 40", Salvatore Mancuso, Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna", and the commander of the paramilitary militias on the north coast of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Hernan Giraldo. Human rights organisations blame the right-wing paramilitary groups for 80 percent of the human rights crimes committed in Colombia's four-decade civil war.

Paramilitary leaders were safe from extradition as long as they adhered to the terms of the controversial 2005 law. However, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, himself accused of links to the death squads, said the 14 leaders had been extradited because they continued committing crimes after demobilising, were not providing full confessions as required by the justice and peace law, and had failed to compensate their victims.

Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a leading human rights organisation, called the extradition "a mockery". "It was clearly spelled out: if they were really committing crimes after demobilising - as they were doing - they were to be referred to the ordinary courts, as established by the justice and peace law," where they would face sentences of up to 40 years rather than the light sentences, of no more than eight years, provided for by the agreement with the government, he said.

Uribe's reason for extraditing the fourteen was also contested by Tovar's lawyer, Hernando Bocanegra, who said the paramilitary leaders were confessing to their crimes "little by little" because that is how the justice and peace law was designed.

In the confession hearings, each survivor had the right to personally ask the paramilitary chiefs about their loved ones who had been killed. The defendants only responded when they personally knew about that particular murder, and had to consult with their subordinates when they didn't, "which was the reason for the delay," said the attorney.

"They were talking," said Bocanegra, who added that there was a "timeframe that was being followed. In the stage of confession, they had gotten to the chapter of murders, massacres and genocidal crimes."

Last week, one of the extradited paramilitary leaders Diego Murillo, alias "Don Berna", confessed that the Colombian army had joined a paramilitary militia under his command in carrying out the February 2005 San José de Apartadó massacre in which eight members of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community were murdered. His extradition so soon after that confession led many to believe that the purpose of sending them to the US was to silence them.

This theory gains credence, according to Jairo Ramirez of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights (CPDH), when one "takes into account that some of those extradited were also giving information about links between the paramilitaries and some of President Uribe's closest political allies". As a result of what has become known as the "parapolitics" scandal, 33 pro-Uribe lawmakers have been charged for their links to the paramilitaries whilst more than 50 others are under investigation.

Shortly before the extradition, investigators used testimony from demobilised paramilitaries to begin investigation President Uribe's alleged role in helping to plan a 1997 massacre by the right-wing paramilitaries, in which 15 people were killed. Some observers see a direct connection between the two.

Claudia Lopez, an independent investigator who helped uncover the "parapolitics" scandal fears criminal cases against politicians will now end: "They've taken away all the witnesses," she said yesterday.

The Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also expressed its concern about the extradition of the paramilitaries stating in a press release today that the extradition interfered with "efforts to determine links between agents of the [Colombian] State and these paramilitary leaders."

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