BOGOTA Colombia's peace negotiations with Marxist FARC rebels will not lead to impunity for the rebels as critics fear after a half-century conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people, a senior Colombian official said.
Justice Minister Ruth Stella Correa told Reuters late on Wednesday that there will have to be alternative forms of redress given the "magnitude" and horrors of the war.
FARC leaders have said they are not prepared to serve a single day in jail, raising concerns that gross violations will go unpunished and victims will not receive their day in court.
Correa is working to create a system that would enable as many as 8,000 fighters of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, to reintegrate into society while ensuring victims receive adequate redress.
"It's impossible to apply the justice of normal times and so it's necessary to construct justice for transitional times, a justice that also depends on voluntary confessions, the surrender of weapons, and above all peace," Correa said in an interview at her office.
Correa said the justice system allows for alternative punishments like house arrest and electronic monitoring in ordinary criminal cases, but she declined to discuss whether these could be applied in cases involving the FARC or whether FARC leaders would face jail time.
She said giving more details could be detrimental to the peace talks.
Colombian negotiators have spent almost 10 months working through a complicated agenda with the FARC that would allow the nation to declare peace with the drug-funded rebels and close a chapter of bloodshed that began in 1964.
More than three dozen FARC leaders are in Havana negotiating with a government team over the terms for their return to Colombia if peace is achieved and how they will begin to make amends with their victims.
While Colombians are desperate to see an end to the war, many are angered by the possibility that FARC commanders, some responsible for horrendous human rights abuses, could walk away without facing jail time.
The center-right Santos, who took a political risk last year when he announced peace talks with the FARC, has seen his approval ratings slump in the last few months in part over the perception he has offered too many concessions to the rebels.
He has argued that it is unrealistic to attempt to investigate and punish all violations and war crimes during the conflict but has repeatedly denied that FARC crimes will go unpunished or that there will be any impunity.
Correa was adamant the "pain" of victims would be heard.
"The legal framework for peace was not built to have impunity. On the contrary, it was constructed so that we are capable of making the transition with the victims at the center, as the essential nucleus of any peace process," she said.
The FARC has sought to overthrow a dozen governments since it began as an agrarian movement against inequality but has been weakened over the last decade by a U.S.-backed military offensive. While its ranks have been halved, the group is still able to hit hard at military and civilian targets.
Before peace talks kicked off last November, Santos pushed through a law that allowed victims to recover land stolen by illegal armed groups. He also created the so-called Legal Framework for Peace which lays the foundation for punishment of war crimes and reparations for victims.
The FARC is not the only insurgent group that has committed crimes against Colombians. There are also victims of right-wing paramilitary death squads and the National Liberation Army, a smaller leftist rebel group better known as the ELN.
The peace framework has been harshly criticized by the opposition and human rights groups as an inadequate law that offers a "backdoor amnesty" for horrific war crimes and may force victims to turn to the international courts for redress.
Some fear it would also violate certain international treaties by effectively pardoning crimes against humanity.
FARC rebels would face justice based on analysis of international standards as well as the Colombian constitution and public opinion, said Correa, a former judge and teacher.
"We have the conviction that the process will stand up to international scrutiny," she said.
Colombia already has a so-called transitional law, passed in 2005 to demobilize 30,000 paramilitary fighters. The group turned in their weapons in return for reduced jail terms and promises to compensate their victims.
Human rights groups, however, charge that the paramilitaries simply morphed into new crime gangs and few have offered any redress.
Any peace agreement must be approved by popular vote in Colombia, Correa said.
(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)