El Tiempo reports today that Colombia’s judicial system is coming dangerously close to freeing army officers and enlisted men involved in the Soacha “false positives” case.
This serious human rights abuse case, revealed in September 2008, involved a group of military personnel who arranged for the abduction and murder of about 20 young men from the suburban BogotÃ¡ slum of Soacha, only to present the victims’ bodies hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat, a result that earned rewards like bonuses and time off.
The Soacha scandal forced the firing of 27 members of the armed forces in late 2008. But the judicial cases against the responsible officers have moved excruciatingly slowly.
Today’s El Tiempo piece reports on one case, in which the Prosecutor-General’s Office (FiscalÃa) claims to have “solid evidence” that two officers and five enlisted men were involved in the murder of two young men from Soacha.
A year later, Colombia’s judicial system still has not decided whether their case is to be tried in the civilian criminal justice system or in a military court. Colombia’s military justice system has a long tradition of extreme leniency in such cases and is meant to try “acts of service,” not human rights crimes. Disputes over jurisdiction in human rights cases are supposed to be settled in favor of the civilian justice system. In this case, though, Colombia’s Supreme Judiciary Council (Consejo Supremo de la Judicatura), which is supposed to decide whether cases go to civilian or military justice, has still not produced a decision.
And time is running out. El Tiempo says that in seven days – October 21 – the deadline for deciding the defendants’ legal situation will run out, and they will have to be freed.
The same thing, on the same date, may also happen in a second case involving a sergeant, a corporal and a private linked to seven murders.
The article notes:
El Tiempo established that the Prosecutor-General’s Office has already sounded the alarms, as have the victims’ families. … Now, what is intended to be established is whether there have been any delaying tactics on the part of the defense of any of the soldiers.
“We believe that the delay in the Judiciary Council to reserve the jurisdictional conflicts is added to the fact that the military’s defenders are trying to entangle the process by making many absurd petitions, and the judges lack the character not to give the defense lawyers everything they ask for,” a high Prosecutor-General’s Office official told El Tiempo.
If soldiers accused of murder are allowed to walk free because of their defense counsel’s delaying tactics – as could happen in one short week, if nothing changes – it will be a blow not just to the victims’ families, but to the credibility of the U.S. government, which certified a month ago that “the Colombian Armed Forces are cooperating fully with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities” in human rights cases.