Colombia’s outgoing President has launched an assault against his country’s courts for taking some initial steps to bring high-ranking military and government officials to justice for their role in murder, illegal wiretapping, disappearances and torture. This is no abstract political debate. When the President takes to the airwaves to denounce those working for justice, the judges, lawyers, witnesses and victims’ families know that death threats, and sometimes murder, often follow. The threats and attacks usually appear to be from paramilitary groups. Colombia’s Supreme Court made a call for help: “We make an appeal to the international community to accompany and show solidarity with the Colombian judicial system which is being assaulted for carrying out its duties.”
These tirades come just as Hillary Clinton makes her first trip to Colombia, announcing in a June 9th joint press conference with President Uribe that, “The United States has been proud to stand with Colombia and we will continue to stand with you in the future.” The Secretary sought to assure the Colombian government that U.S. military assistance would flow, and that the Obama Administration supported a trade agreement, seeming to signal that concerns about human rights and labor rights came from the Congress rather than the White House. “The security threats have not completely been eliminated and therefore the United States will continue to support the Colombian military, the Colombian people and their government in their ongoing struggle,” Clinton said. “There is no resting until the job is done.”
On June 10, President Uribe went on national television surrounded by the military’s high command to denounce the justice system for a verdict against Colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega for the disappearance of 11 people in 1985 following the army’s storming of the Palace of Justice. The M-19 guerrillas had seized the Palace, taking hostages and demanding to put the President on trial. In the army’s no-holds barred retaking of the Palace, more than 100 people were killed, including the guerrillas and 11 of the 24 Supreme Court justices. The colonel’s conviction, however, was not for the methods used when the army retook the palace. Instead, it was for the disappearance of 11 people, mainly cafeteria workers, who left the Palace alive and then disappeared, “allegedly tortured and killed because they witnessed heavy-handed tactics by the army as it stormed the building.”
Uribe blasted the verdict part of a “panorama of judicial insecurity which conspires against the maintenance of public order in Colombia.” But to the families of the disappeared cafeteria workers, justice is finally at hand. “With this groundbreaking ruling the victims’ families, who for almost a quarter of a century have campaigned for justice, have begun to break the silence that has for so long protected those responsible,” said Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International.
On June 1, President Uribe attacked the Attorney General’s office for investigating his ex-director of the Special Administrative Unit for Financial Information and Analysis (UIAF), who was allegedly implicated in the DAS scandal regarding the illegal wiretapping of judges, human rights defenders, and journalists. He labeled the ex-director “an innocent, good man who has only served the country.”
A few days later, Uribe blasted the Attorney General’s office and lawyers for bringing General Freddy Padilla de León in for questioning. Padilla was summoned to testify regarding the system of armed forces’ incentives which are believed to have driven soldiers to commit abuses in order to up their body counts. “I raise my voice against the accusations against General Padilla de León. They are useful and useless idiots of terrorism who don’t do anything more than make false accusations…. Terrorism now wants to win via ink-stained wretches who want to stop the advances of democratic security.” Uribe called for new legislation to protect the military’s high command from accusations regarding the conduct of their troops.
Clinton’s one-day trip included a much-commented visit to a Bogotá restaurant, which was used to demonstrate that the country’s improved security situation now permitted her to have a “wonderful meal” in safety.
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