BOGOTA Colombia's Congress on Thursday passed a law that could pave the way for peace talks with leftist guerrillas, raising hopes for an end to the war, but drawing criticism from human rights groups that say the law is too lenient toward rebel leaders.
Despite being at its weakest in decades, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has stepped up attacks in recent months, showing it can still rock the Andean country with high-profile assaults.
Rebel leaders have given mixed signs that they may be keen to engage in peace talks and end almost five decades of bomb attacks on politicians and infrastructure, kidnappings, drug trafficking and clashes with security forces.
Negotiations are more likely now that the Senate has ratified the so-called Legal Framework for Peace, which calls for soft sentences for FARC leaders if a peace deal is reached, providing they confess their crimes and compensate victims.
"This is the price to pay for peace, we have to be upfront with people about it," said Senator Hernan Andrade, a member of the governing "U" party.
An overwhelming majority of senators voted for the law, which bars guerrillas involved in human rights abuses from public office.
Under President Juan Manuel Santos, government forces have dealt hard blows to the FARC, killing top commanders and dismantling guerrilla units. Yet Santos has offered the rebels an olive branch on condition they release hostages and halt attacks.
Santos supported the approval of the law despite a string of attacks on oil infrastructure and a blast in Bogota last month targeting Fernando Londono, a former minister. Londono survived the explosion, but his driver and a bodyguard were killed.
Only members of the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), another leftist group, stand to benefit from the law. It excludes criminals involved with drug cartels or former paramilitary groups.
'AMNESTY IN DISGUISE'
Some rights groups have lashed out at the law saying it would allow FARC commanders responsible for atrocious war crimes to benefit from soft prison sentences or even walk away free.
"The Legal Framework for Peace is essentially an amnesty in disguise," Human Rights Watch has said in a statement.
"Adoption of legislation that provides a 'get out of jail free card' to those most responsible for the worst crimes would send a strong signal of unwillingness on the part of the Colombian government to move forward with accountability."
The law does not give a timeline for talks, and previous attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict have proved fruitless. The FARC took advantage of the last negotiation process a decade ago to retake control of areas in central Colombia.
The FARC first took up arms in the 1960s as a Marxist group struggling against inequality, but later turned to kidnapping and drug-trafficking to finance itself. Colombia is a leading producer of cocaine.
The group is popular in rural areas where hospitals and schools are scarce and many people feel they are not benefiting from the economic boom that city-dwellers are enjoying.
The country is set to rack up a record $16 billion in foreign investment this year, and much of the money will go to mining and oil areas previously controlled by rebels.
The middle class is growing rapidly, opening bank accounts and spending heavily on cars and flat-screen television.
Colombia began making significant advances against the FARC a decade ago, under the government of then-President Alvaro Uribe. Santos, who took office in 2010, continued using U.S. aid to crack down on rebels and drug gangs.
But Santos is more inclined to peace talks than his predecessor, and has also tackled some of the social problems at the root of the unrest by giving land back to poor, displaced peasants and offering to pay reparations to victims.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)