July 27, 2005

U.S. wants Colombia to get tough on rights abusers

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombia must aggressively
prosecute human rights atrocities and ensure that right-wing
paramilitaries who are guilty of murder are brought to justice,
a top U.S. government official said on Wednesday.

Nicholas Burns, U.S. under secretary of state for political
affairs, told Reuters he expected "tough" implementation of the
government's new law governing the disbandment of the country's
violent, drug-running militias.

"We think it has to be implemented in a very aggressive,
very tough way because, while peace is the reason for a program
like this, justice is important as well," the No. 3 State
Department official said following a Bogota news conference
after a two-day visit to the Andean country.

Some U.S. congressmen have said the demobilization law,
which offers reduced jail time to paramilitary criminals who
turn in their arms, goes too soft on them and does little to
dismantle their criminal networks.

Charges will be brought against those who have evidence
against them pointing to crimes such as murder, massacre or
drug trafficking.

Since the 1980s the "paras" have helped Colombia's army
beat back the country's Marxist insurgents, often killing
civilians they accuse of cooperating with the guerrillas.

The government has promised to break the connection between
the army and the paramilitaries but human rights groups fear
the links continue.

Both the rebels and their paramilitary foes fund themselves
through Colombia's huge cocaine trade, which the United States
has spent more than $3 billion in recent years trying to combat
through an aid program called Plan Colombia.

Burns also said he expects Colombia to get to the bottom of
cases like the February massacre in San Jose de Apartado, a
northern town where residents accuse the army, backed by
paramilitaries, of hacking three children and five adults to
death with machetes, a charge the army denies.

"We would like to see expeditious prosecution," Burns said.
"That is import to the families of the victims and it is also
important symbolically."

He said there was a "bright focus" on human rights in his
talks with the government.

"I received very detailed explanations of the government's
position on each of these cases and of the steps the government
intends to take to bring them to a rapid conclusion," Burns
added. "I am satisfied that the president is dedicated to
resolving these cases."