October 18, 2019 / 12:23 AM / a month ago

Mothers of Colombia's disappeared seek justice at war tribunal

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Mothers of young men and teenagers who say their sons were murdered by government soldiers during Colombia’s conflict begged a tribunal for answers on Thursday as the country investigates human rights atrocities committed during its war.

Colombia’s five-decade war pitted leftist rebels against government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups. Some 200,000 people were killed, 7.7 million displaced and 60,000 listed as missing, according to government figures.

A 2016 peace accord between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels established a Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal which is investigating war crimes.

Its aims including uncovering what happened during Colombia’s war and prosecuting FARC leaders and state military officials accused of human rights abuses.

Wearing T-shirts with photos of their missing sons as handmade quilts and posters commemorating the dead lined the Bogota courtroom’s walls, a dozen mothers and other relatives described their long quest for justice before three judges.

“I want to know the truth about what happened to my son, who did it and why. Who took him away?,” said Beatriz Mendez, whose 19-year-old son and a nephew disappeared in 2004.

“I’ve been waiting for more than a decade for justice. There will be divine justice,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as other mothers hugged and wiped away tears.

The rights abuses are among the so-called “false positives” scandal that rocked Colombia in the late 2000s, when army units were found to have killed civilians and listed them as guerrillas killed in combat to inflate casualty numbers.

Some officers accused of involvement have appeared before the JEP tribunal, while dozens of soldiers and officers have been convicted of crimes tied to the scandal since 2008 and are in prison. Dozens more have been fired.

Colombia’s attorney general’s office is also investigating nearly 2,300 similar cases of alleged extra-judicial killings when victims, some as young as 16, were often lured from their homes in Bogota’s slum neighborhoods by the promise of work.

“Our duty is to reach those who are the most responsible,” judge Catalina Diaz told the hearing.

REDUCED JAILED SENTENCES

The peace accord allows for former rebels and others who come forward to receive reduced sentences and avoid prison if they confess to crimes and repay victims, including any land and property seizures.

Those admitting to war crimes will be sentenced to five to eight years of “alternative punishment”. What that will mean in reality remains unclear, but options could include community service, restricted freedom or house arrest.

Those who neither confess nor accept responsibility and are found guilty could face up to 20 years in jail.

The peace accord has been criticized by some Colombians who demand tougher sanctions and jail for FARC rebels.

But judge Ivan Gonzalez emphasized that the JEP is focused on ensuring victims learn the truth about what happened and receive reparations as outlined in the peace accord.

“The more truth and reparations there are, the less jail time there is,” he said.

Besides extra-judicial killings, judges are sifting through thousands of victim testimonies and investigating select cases as most representative of the atrocities, including kidnapping and the recruitment of children as fighters into FARC ranks.

“In the case of (child) recruitment we have 8,800 cases, so to investigate this really takes a long time,” Gonzalez said.

He said it is hoped the JEP can build a case on the use of sexual violence by FARC rebels, including forced abortions against women and girls in guerrilla ranks, and examine whether guerrillas used rape as a weapon of war.

Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Chris Michaud. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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