October 2, 2015 / 6:29 PM / 2 years ago

Colombia war victims demand justice, truth as peace talks advance

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombians uprooted from their homes, abducted or bereaved in the country’s five-decade civil war have reacted with hostility or grudging acceptance to a breakthrough agreement between the government and FARC rebels on justice for war crimes.

President Juan Manuel Santos, in an interview with Reuters, said he had to give more ground on the thorny issue of justice than many Colombians would like, to ensure that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would lay down their weapons and end the conflict.

Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known as Timochenko, agreed last week to create special courts to try guerrillas and members of the military, with a maximum eight-year detention to be imposed on those who admit to war crimes.

Some Colombian politicians, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, and human rights groups have said the deal amounts to impunity for criminals.

And many ordinary Colombians, caught up in a war that has killed some 220,000 people, feel the same.

Piedad was 19 when she was recruited at gunpoint into guerrilla ranks and held as a sex slave to leftist rebels in a FARC camp for three months before managing to escape during an army bombing raid.

“Every day five to eight men would take turns and do what they wanted to my body. My wounds haven’t healed and will remain with me for my entire life,” said Piedad, now 45, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“For them (the FARC) to just get eight years, in what’s not even a proper jail, isn’t nearly enough for raping girls over and over again and all the other vile abuses they’ve committed,”

A poll conducted after the agreement was announced and published in the newspaper El Tiempo shows many Colombians agree with Piedad, with nearly 70 percent of those interviewed saying the deal will not bring justice for victims of the FARC.

RIGHT TO JUSTICE

More than 15 percent of Colombia’s 47 million people have suffered in some way as a result of the 51-year war involving Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and government armed forces.

Under last week’s agreement made at talks in Cuba, guerrilla fighters and government soldiers who admit to war crimes such as torture, sexual violence and forced disappearances, will have their “freedom restricted” for five to eight years, and be detained under surveillance in a place that Santos said would be “an austere installation”.

Those who refuse to admit to crimes, and are then found guilty, will face up to 20 years in jail.

Both sides also agreed to set a deadline by which a final peace accord must be signed - March 23, 2016 - and that rebels would lay down their weapons within 60 days of a deal.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized the agreement on justice, saying it would deny real justice to thousands of victims and is unlikely to stand up to scrutiny by the International Criminal Court.

“While the special jurisdiction would encourage confessions, it would also allow those most responsible for mass atrocities to completely avoid prison, denying their victims the right to justice in any meaningful sense of the word,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, HRW’s Americas director, said in a statement.

Across Colombia there are 7.4 million war victims listed on the official victims’ register, 85 percent of whom have been driven from their homes, along with landmine victims, rape survivors, and children recruited into armed groups.

Santos said the deal on justice is a sacrifice worth paying to ensure there is no more bloodshed.

“Is it a reasonable price to pay? And the answer is, of course it is, by far. Because the alternative is to continue 30 more years of war,” he said in an interview with Reuters Editor in Chief Stephen Adler on Wednesday.

“MASS GRAVE”

But rights groups say finding a balance between victims’ hunger for justice and progress towards a peace accord is crucial to healing the wounds of war, breaking cycles of revenge and ensuring a lasting peace.

For 63-year-old Edelmira Reyes, forced by armed FARC rebels to flee her home in the countryside when she was still a girl, the latest agreement is a necessary evil.

“Without jail there’s no justice. But what’s been agreed on is better than nothing. The war has to stop so there won’t be any more victims and displaced people,” she said.

Many of the relatives of those who were killed and the some 30,000 Colombians who have disappeared, say justice should involve a genuine apology and greater efforts to find the bodies of the missing.

Luz Marina Bernal’s son, who had mental and physical disabilities, was killed seven years ago, at the age of 26, by state security forces. At the time, his killing was passed off as a guerrilla killed in battle to inflate the body count.

But in 2012 six army officers and soldiers were convicted of his forced disappearance and murder and handed down prison sentences of up to 52 years.

“There are many more similar cases still in impunity. I never received a heartfelt apology from the military who murdered my son,” said Bernal, one of 60 war victims who traveled to Cuba to give testimony to peace negotiators.

“Colombia is a mass grave. Our minimum demand is that all sides give families back their dead with dignity. I‘m concerned about who will be in charge of the tribunals, and if the truth about those missing will ever really come to light.”

Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Ros Russell; Reuters Messaging: Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org

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