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Colombia drops plan to let military judge abuses in its ranks

February 21, 2012 |  4:30 am

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addresses troops

Colombia has shelved a plan to expand the power of military courts to judge alleged military abuses, an idea that was vigorously opposed by human rights groups.

"Military judges lack the independence and impartiality to decide whether an alleged crime constitutes a human rights violation and duly transfer the case to civilian authorities when necessary," Human Rights Watch wrote in a letter to President Juan Manuel Santos in December after the plan was proposed.

A commission made up of former magistrates and retired military personnel had advised the government to withdraw the reform. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said Saturday that the country wouldn't "retreat even one step on human rights."

Colombia has grappled for decades with an armed and seemingly intractable conflict between the government and leftist rebels, who the state says are in league with criminal gangs. Guerrilla groups have attacked Colombian civilians and have been accused of using child soldiers.

In the throes of that conflict, the Colombian military has been accused of abusing its powers. In some of the most alarming cases revealed over the last decade, civilians have been killed and falsely labeled as combatants -- so-called false positives -- to plump up government statistics.

Echoing the worries raised by rights groups, The Times editorialized against the plan in January:

Colombian officials insist that the current proposal, which is expected to be debated by Congress in March, isn't an attempt to wrest back military control of prosecutions from civilian courts; the country's defense minister says that serious human rights violations, including rape, torture and forced disappearances, would still be turned over to civilian judges. But that's hard to believe given that the decision about which cases to turn over would be made by the military, which lacks professional investigators and judges as well as the necessary independence and impartiality.

RELATED:

Colombia's wrong-way reform

Colombia civilians caught in war against insurgents

Colombia attacks blamed on alliances of rebels with criminals

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, right, addresses soldiers with Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon at the military base in Popayan in November. Credit: Fernando Vergara / Associated Press

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