BOGOTA, July 2(Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombians have taken to social media and online petitioning to demand that seven soldiers charged with the sexual assault of an indigenous child receive maximum prison sentences, voicing outrage and concern that justice will not be delivered.
The soldiers admitted to “abusive sexual intercourse” with the 12-year-old girl from the Embera tribe last week and face the possibility of 16- to 30-year prison sentences, according to Colombia’s Attorney General Francisco Barbosa.
They are formally charged and awaiting civilian trials.
The case has brought into focus sexual violence against indigenous women and girls that tribal leaders and human rights groups say is invisible and often ignored, especially reported crimes by the military.
Colombia’s indigenous groups have long accused illegal armed groups and the armed forces of human rights violations, particularly during the long civil war and struggles over land, which they say are fueled by racism.
Seeking justice in the rape case, an online petition demanding the maximum penalties collected more than 61,000 signatures in a week.
“We must keep pushing for the maximum penalty to be applied and that under no circumstances for there to be a reduced sentence or impunity,” said Cesar Augusto Rodriguez, who launched the petition.
Colombians expressed outrage on Twitter as well.
“We’re tired of so much violence and so much impunity,” tweeted Sara Tufano, a sociologist.
‘HURTS US ALL’
The girl disappeared from her rural community reserve in the northwestern Risaralda province on June 22.
She was found later, unable to walk, and hospitalized.
She told authorities she had been sexually abused by a group of soldiers.
Maximum sentences would send a message that such crimes will not be tolerated, said Dayana Domico, an Embera leader.
“They attacked the whole Embera nation, and it hurts all of us,” Domico said, adding that the girl was getting care from a traditional healer.
Cases of sexual violence by armed groups or the military are underreported, and no official tally exists, she said.
“There is impunity,” Domico told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Many times people don’t pay for their crimes,” she said, while others are placed under house arrest or given reduced sentences.
Colombia’s military leaders and president condemned the incident, and the seven soldiers and three superiors were fired.
At least 118 army members have been investigated since 2016 for alleged involvement in sexual abuse against children, of which nearly 50 involve indigenous children, according to Army General Eduardo Zapateiro.
Of those military members, 45 were fired and the rest face criminal and disciplinary investigations, Zapateiro said at a July 1 virtual news conference.
The opposition says the military fostered a culture of sexual violence.
“They are not bad apples, it’s a perverse doctrine that has to change,” Heidy Sanchez, a councilwoman in Bogota, wrote on Twitter.
Few cases of sexual violence are solved or punished in Colombia.
Last year, of the nearly 34,000 cases reported, about 15% resulted in a conviction, according to the attorney general’s office.
The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, the country’s leading indigenous authority, has said the accused soldiers should also face punishment under indigenous law.
Colombia’s constitution allows indigenous communities in autonomous reserves to dole out judgments and punishments in cases involving tribal members.
Out of Colombia’s population of 50 million people, about two million belong to indigenous groups.
Other cases of reported sexual violence against indigenous girls by the armed forces have recently come to light.
One case involved a young girl allegedly sexually abused by soldiers at an army site in the jungle Guaviare province for several days without food or water, local media reported.
In June, Colombia’s Congress passed a bill allowing life sentences for convicted sex offenders.
While it is not yet signed into law, President Ivan Duque has said he had not ruled out its use in the Embera case if the soldiers were convicted.