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I/A Court H.R.: Colombia recognizes human rights violations

Tuesday, November 12th 2013
In the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I/A Court H.R.) public session held in Brasilia (DF), the Republic of Colombia acknowledged its partial responsibility for human rights violations which occured during the recovery operation of the Palace of Justice in 1985, which resulted in the disappearance of 13 people. The session took place on Tuesday (12) and will continue on Wednesday (13) in the Superior Labor Court (TST), as part of the 49th special session of the Court. Members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, representatives of the Republic of Colombia and relatives of the victims were present, besides members of the Court. The Chief Justice of the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (STF), Joaquim Barbosa, accompanied the first part of the session.

The case

The recognition occurred in the Vera Rodriguez and others v. Colombia case, which involves taking and retaking of the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, which houses the Supreme Court and Council of State of Colombia, on November, 6 and 7,  1985. According to the lawsuit, on the morning of the 6th, a group of guerrillas of the April 19th Movement (M-19) occupied the palace and took about 350 hostages. During the eviction operation, there were clashes between guerrillas and the military, with an exchange of gunfire, tank and fire attacks and, as a result, dozens of people were killed - the exact number is not known to date.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which brought the case to the I/A Court H.R., 13 people disappeared after the episode, and could not be identified among the dead. Relatives of those missing said that in addition to TV images which show them alive, they had received calls from members of the Army stating that people had been arrested and led to military bases where they were being tortured to confess their alleged connection with the M-19.


In today's session, the President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, José de Jesús Orozco, maintained that the 13 missing survived the operation and were in the custody of the Armed Forces outside the Palace. Only the destination of two of the survivors are known - the assistant judge of the Council of State, Carlos Horacio Urán, and Castiblanco Rosa Torres, an employee of the local coffee shop, who were recognized as dead. Four others were subject to physical and psychological torture.

The committee emphasized that the operation involved intelligence and security agencies, the military forces and police, the Ministry of Defense and the Presidency of the Republic. "The 13 forced disappearances and the four cases of torture continue unpunished," said Orozco, noting that only two military officers were convicted in decisions not yet final and unappealable by the Colombian Justice. "Despite the passage of years, the case still has not been solved, and its impact on the victims' lives, of their families and of the very Colombian society requires a comprehensive answer, which includes clarification measures, civil , criminal and disciplinary responsibility, reparation and non-repetition."


The director of the National Agency of Legal Defence of Colombia, Adriana Guillén, admitted the State's international responsibility on part of the facts which occured. Guillén read the term of recognition alongside other Colombian representatives, who stood up and turned to the victims' relatives present at the session and asked for forgiveness.

The defender has assumed that the State was responsible for omissions that resulted in the violation of rights to freedom of conscience and religion and personal integrity and in the violation of judicial guarantees regarding those missing and tortured. The event recognizes that these people were in the Palace of Justice at the time of the invasion by the Army and later disappeared .

"We apologize and express our absolute respect for the victims and their families," he said. "We understand that time has passed, and consequently caused the loss of trust in the State and in its institutions, and we hope that this act of recognition helps the victims and their families to regain that trust."

Late recognition

For the victims' representatives, recognition occurred partially and late and without the good faith requirement. "It is unacceptable that after 28 years the denying continues, the lack of interest of all governments, the concealment of truth," said a spokesman for the group. "The recognition is empty because it is not known that the disappearance was collective."

They argue that the reparation cannot be restricted to compensation." For 28 years, the State's position appreciated the omission, the concealment, the hindering of the judicial proceedings and the revictimization, perpetuating impunity."

The relatives also reject that the acts performed in unemployment be called "errors", and argue that the action's deliberate purpose was to torture, execute and hide the disappearances evidence. They claim that they appealed to the Human Rights Inter-American system because "the Colombian State, willingly, will never clarify the truth."

Also, the chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, Jesús Orozco, although classifying Colombia's  gesture as "constructive," said that it is not just "omissions," but "acts of enforced disappearance and torture committed in a coordinated and articulated way by officers belonging to the various State entities," and later, "actions deliberately practiced by the Army to cover up such facts." According to him, the partial recognition "does not reflect what actually happened to the victims of forced disappearance nor the true scope of international responsibility by the State."

The search for truth

The president of I/A Court H.R., Garcia Sayán, said that the recognition of the Colombian State will be analyzed "in due time", but noted that it was "a major step for a constructive relation to address this case regarding the rights of the victims." According to Sayán, the court will consider "carefully" all demonstrations and, the fact that there is acknowledgment of responsibility for the events that occured 28 years ago, is something to be valued as a positive element in order to find a solution which arrives "at the truth, justice and the victims' reparation."


The public session continues tomorrow (13) with the witnesses' hearing and experts' testimony. One of the most outstanding testimony this Tuesday was from one of the survivors, Iolanda Santo Domingo, a law student at the time of the facts and one of the hostages. She recounted she was at the Palace of Justice because of an academic paper and told details of the military officers' actions during the invasion, when she was considered subversive and, therefore, imprisoned and tortured. César Rodrigues Vera told the his family's history in search of information about his brother, Carlos Augusto Vera, one of the missing persons.

Also on Tuesday, the Court heard Ana Maria Bidegaín, Judge Carlos Horacio Urán's widow. The initial version regarding Urán was that he was a crossfire victim during the operation but, in 2007, his personal belongings were identified in the Army's facility where he was supposedly tortured and executed.

Another witness was Angela Maria Buitrago Ruiz who, as a prosecutor, led the case's investigations between 2005 and 2010, and recounted details of what was found. The investigations led to the identification of two dead (the assistant judge of the Council of State Carlos Horacio Urán and Rosa Castiblanco Torres, an employee of the local coffee shop ) but, according to her, nothing was found that could be related to those missing.

The forensic anthropologist Carlos Salinas Bacigalupo spoke about his specialty - the processing of the crime scene and the victims' bodies. Salinas showed videos of the invasion operation and footage taken after the eviction and pointed to alleged manipulations which resulted in the loss of evidence and hampered the victums' identification.

The two-day public meeting in Brasilia ended the investigation phase of the process. Next, the deadline opens for the parties to present their written arguments. The closing arguments are the last step before the Court prolates the sentence, which must occur on the first semester of 2014.


Read more:
11/11/2013 - IACDH STF and underscore the importance of the inter-American human rights

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