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31467Colombia Court Finds Military Justice Reform Law Unconstitutional

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  • Cort Greene
    Oct 24, 2013
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      Colombia court knocks down controversial military justice law

      posted by Daniel Freeman
      Colombia court knocks down controversial military justice law

      In a landmark ruling that is unappealable, Colombia’s constitutional court on Wednesday struck down a military justice reform that according to human rights groups would have given war criminals impunity.  This decision represents a blow to the government, which has been trying to pass this law for almost five years.

      The Court’s 5-4 ruling prevented a military justice reform amendment to Colombia’s Constitution that would have allowed military courts to try their own people for all but seven crimes that constitute crimes against humanity.  The seven would have been the only crimes tried in civilian court.

      Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, a strong supporter of the bill, called this legal military defeat “a blow to the morale of the military forces that will without a doubt affect Colombians’ security.”

      Local media reported that in anticipation of this decision, the government has begun preparing alternative legislative proposals to try to overhaul the military penal system again.

      The Courts have yet to release the opinions of the decision.

      One of the seven crimes against humanity specified was ‘extrajudicial execution,’ the crime linked to Colombia’s notorious ‘false positives’ scandal that broke in the mid 2000′s.  ’Extrajudicial execution’ is the centerpiece of the conflict surrounding this bill.

      This ‘false positives’ scandal, which involved members of Colombia’s military killing nearly 4,000 civilians and dressing them up as enemy combatants in order to boost numbers of deceased militant hostiles, prompted the once invulnerable military to be stripped of its internal judicial system in 2008 because the armed forces dragged its feet prosecuting those responsible.

      FACT SHEETSFalse Positives

      Since then, the military and the government have been fighting to reclaim military judicial autonomy only to achieve failed attempts that often resulted in the the exposure of more scandals and cover-ups.  Those in favor of reform however found success this past summer when in June, Congress passed the bill in question, allowing the armed forces–which report to the President through the Defense Minister–to use their own tribunals for all crimes except seven designated as crimes against humanity.

      MORE: Colombia passes controversial military justice reform bill

      The Constitutional Court determining the constitutionality of the law would be the last step before officially ratified.

      Both Human rights organizations and international organizations immediately became up in arms over this decision and have put pressure on the Colombian government to overturn this law.  In addition to the primary argument that there is inherent bias and often leniency when the military tries their own, human rights organizations have claimed that the system “is at odds with international human rights standards and threatens to deny justice to victims of egregious abuses by the military.”  Human Rights Watch also claimed that there were many loopholes in the law, which would allow for war crimes to be tried in military tribunals in spite of the reform.

      MOREEU must not support Colombia’s military justice system: HRW
      MOREUN warns Colombia’s military justice reform may harm human rights record

      Human rights groups however have been most concerned over the possibility of perpetrators of crimes such as ‘false positives’ receiving impunity from these courts.  President Juan Manuel Santos and the government had held strong that no one involved in ‘extrajudicial executions’ would receive impunity.

      MORESerious crimes committed by the armed forces may go unpunished: Colombia President

      Colombia’s congress have not taken the President at his word however as the legislative body has withheld around $10 million in military aid in objection to the law, according to the Associated Press.

      As the government regroups and tries to see if military reform this large will be possible in the future, human rights groups will celebrate this constitutional victory and breath easier for a moment.


      THURSDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2013

      Colombia Court Finds Military Justice Reform Law Unconstitutional

      A Colombian high court has ruled that a controversial military reform law backed by the government is unconstitutional, a development which could add unforeseen pressure on the peace talks with FARC rebels in Havana.

      In what the AP calls “a stiff blow to the government,” the Constitutional Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that lawmakers’ recent approval of a bill which grants military courts increased jurisdiction over crimes committed by members of the armed forces violated the constitution. While the decision was not released, a statement read by Judge Jorge Ivan Palacio maintained that the court found “procedural defects” in the way the law was approved by Congress. El Tiempo reports that these included irregularities in the manner the bill passed from a lower house committee to the full floor, as well as the limited “quality of the debate” surrounding the bill, which was marked by pressure from the executive branch and ruling party.

      Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon called the ruling “a great blow to the morale of the armed forces.” El Espectador reports that he told reporters that the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos intends to send a new bill to Congress which will allow for many of the same revisions to the military justice system. Considering the months of debate that the previous bill underwent before its approval in the Senate in June, however, it is doubtful that the new measure will be passed before Santos’ current term ends in August 2014.

      Semana magazine notes that the ruling is a victory for the five opposition congressmen who filed the complaint with the court, as well as human rights organizations in the country. While criticism from civil society groups forced the Senate to include provisions which guaranteed that certain human rights abuses would remain under the jurisdiction of civil courts, concerns lingered about the law’s potential to grant impunity to military abusers.

      But the Constitutional Court’s decision has a downside. La Silla Vacia points out that the military justice reform law had a kind of placating effect on critics of Santos’ peace talks with the FARC, assuring members of the armed forces that they would not later have to stand trial for their decisions on the battlefield while guerrilla leaders were left off the hook. As the news site puts it:
      “In effect, for many in the army the military justice reform was a sort of protective shield that would give them the legal guarantees they had been demanding for years to allow them to undertake what they consider to be the last offensives against the guerrillas. And Santos wanted to give this to them -- even as criticism rained down (especially of the initial draft) by victims’ organizations and international human rights organizations, among others --as one of the ‘goodies’  they were given when [the president] entered into dialogue with the FARC just as the military felt it was about to defeat them.”
      Now that this “goodie” has been taken away from them, high ranking officers may be much more willing to speak out against the peace process, which will already face heightened criticismin the upcoming election season. Indeed, it appears this is already happening. Hours after the ruling, an army general wishing to remain anonymous described the military’s perception of the decision to La Silla Vacia:   “Imagine what could be happening right now in the head of the men at the front, putting their necks on the line. These things make one think, because one is committed to the country but needs a kind of protective shield