May 19, 2006

Court ruling derails Colombia peace plan: militias

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - Leaders of Colombia's illegal
right-wing paramilitaries said on Friday peace talks with the
government have been derailed by a court decision saying some
of them must serve full prison terms.

The Constitutional Court on Thursday threw out parts of
last year's Justice and Peace law, saying that militia members
who turn in their guns will serve no more than eight years for
crimes such as drug smuggling, massacre, rape and torture.

The court ruling upset the paramilitaries because it said
those sentenced before peace talks started 2 1/2 years ago,
such as militia leader Salvatore Mancuso, must serve their full
original terms.

Paramilitary spokesman Ivan Roberto Duque, alias Ernesto
Baez, told local radio the court did not appreciate the effort
made by the paramilitaries, more than 30,000 of whom have
demobilized. He called its decision a "mortal blow" to
Colombia's peace process.

"The only benefits that the law offered and that motivated
the laying down of arms have been abruptly canceled by the
Constitutional Court," Duque said.

Colombia is in a 4-decade-old guerrilla war in which the
paramilitaries fight with left-wing rebels over control of the
Andean country's lucrative cocaine trade. Thousands are killed
in the cross-fire every year while the violence forces tens of
thousands from their homes.

The Justice and Peace law applies to members of any illegal
armed group who want to turn themselves in, but the government
has made little progress in making peace with left-wing rebels
who say they are fighting for socialism in a country with wide
gaps between rich and poor.

The court decided the law was constitutional but overly
generous in the legal benefits it offered.

"I am worried that the groups that continue armed activity
in this country will now be even more motivated to do so,"
Duque said.

Human Rights Watch, which had criticized the peace plan,
welcomed the ruling.

"As it stood, the law was basically a giveaway by the
government to the paramilitary commanders, with a complete
disregard for the rule of law," Maria McFarland, Colombia
expert for the New York-based rights group, told Reuters.

The court decision came a week and a half before President
Alvaro Uribe, who sees the paramilitary demobilization as one
of the main achievements of his first term, is expected to win
re-election on May 28. Uribe is popular for cutting crime as
part of his U.S.-backed military crackdown on the rebels.

The paramilitaries, formed in the 1980s by cocaine
traffickers and landowners to counter the rebels, have said
they plan to enter politics after laying down their arms.

"The immediate effect of the court decision will be a delay
in the implementation of the law while paramilitary leaders
negotiate with the government and members of Congress to try to
soften the effects of the ruling," said Mauricio Romero,
political analyst at Bogota's Rosario University.

"But there is no way they are going to go back to waging
war as paramilitaries again, not after these last three years
of trying to become legitimate political players," Romero said.

Analysts say the paramilitaries, who are labeled terrorists
by the United States, already have strong influence in Congress
through bribery and strong-arm tactics.