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Colombia: Less Torture, More Impunity
Helda Martínez / Saturday 14 November 2009

The number of cases of torture attributed to the armed forces in Colombia increased 80 percent from 2003 to 2008, in a context of near total impunity for such crimes. However, the number of documented torture cases overall fell 43.5 percent, compared to the 1998-2003 period.

Despite this "relative decline," torture is still "a systematic and widespread practice perpetrated by all of the armed groups" active in the country, says the alternative NGO report to the government’s fourth periodic report to the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT), presented in Geneva this week.

"At least 187 cases attributed to the armed forces were documented between July 1998 and June 2003," and 337 from July 2003 to June 2008, "an increase of 80 percent," says the alternative report, produced by the Colombian Coalition against Torture, a network of local and international human rights groups.

Although most cases are not reported - or if they are, they are not recorded as cases of torture - the figures compiled by the Coalition show that the rise in cases of torture committed by members of the military coincided with the drop in cases blamed on the far-right paramilitary militias, which partially demobilised as a result of negotiations between 2003 and 2006 with the right-wing government of President Álvaro Uribe.

From July 2003 to June 2008, at least 280 victims of paramilitaries were reported, compared to 754 between July 1998 and June 2003, says the 112-page NGOs report.

The Coalition blames the cases of torture committed by state agents on Uribe’s flagship "democratic security" policy.

During the period studied, "at least 899 people" were the victims of torture, 502 of whom were killed, says the report.

Of that total, the responsible armed group was identified in 666 cases. The state is implicated in 93 percent of those cases, either because the security forces were directly responsible (in 50 percent of the cases), or through omission, tolerance, acquiescence or support of the violations committed by paramilitary groups, which were responsible for 42 percent of the cases. The rest of the cases were blamed on the left-wing guerrillas.

The Coalition’s report was released in Bogota Tuesday and in Geneva Wednesday, to coincide with the presentation of the Colombian state’s fourth periodic report, presented Wednesday to CAT, which examines states parties’ compliance with the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, ratified by Colombia in 1987.

The fourth periodic report says the country has made significant efforts to combat violence, thanks to the democratic security policy, which according to the government has led to a reduction in crimes like murder, kidnapping and torture.

The Colombian Coalition against Torture is made up of the Association of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (ASFADDES), the Minga Association, the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, the Colombian Commission of Jurists, the Corporación AVRE (which provides support and mental health services to victims of political violence), the Corporación Reiniciar, the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the Italian chapter of Terre des Hommes.

Although Colombia is required to submit periodic reports on its compliance with the Convention against Torture every four years, the last one dates back to 2003.

Between 2003 and 2008, "of the total documented cases in which the sex of the victim was known (793 victims), 86 percent were men and 14 percent women," says the NGOs report. "With respect to age, 30 percent were underage minors and 26 percent were young people."

Fear and impunity

The significant under-registration of cases is due to victims’ fears of reporting torture, as well as to the fact that "torture is frequently hidden behind other crimes," said Franklin Castañeda, spokesman for the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners.

"There are many extrajudicial executions that are presented as deaths in combat," but most of the cases were actually murders preceded by torture, "frequently committed by state agents, a practice that has been well-documented," he said.

"Or it is assumed that since the person died, the investigation is of a homicide. They hide beatings, slash wounds, simulated drownings and many other practices for which the perpetrators should be punished as a form of prevention, to keep these things from continuing to happen," said Castañeda.

The widow of Javier Correa, a 32-year-old peasant farmer killed by members of the "Ingeniero Agustín Codazzi" army battalion in a rural area in the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca gave her personal account at the presentation of the NGOs report in Bogotá.

"Five years ago they came to our farm and took my husband away for no reason, without any explanation. They took him away alive and two hours later his body was found. He wasn’t a community leader or activist or anything, just an ordinary hard-working man, a peasant. The father of my daughter," Nini Johana Oviedo said just before leaving the country with her nine-year-old daughter.

"We’ve experienced five years of harassment and telephone threats, which lately have been followed by visits to our house by supposed police officers who show up late at night with false arrest warrants. The pressure has targeted my entire family," said Oviedo.

"My daughter had to stop going to school, and we can’t go outside for fear that we’ll be killed. We feel like we’re prisoners," she said through her tears.

"That’s why I’m calling for an end to impunity for crimes like torture which occur every day amidst the indifference of society, but especially of the government," said Oviedo.

When "victims like Nini Johana dare to report crimes committed by agents of the state, despite the difficulties involved, they become rays of hope that this situation can be made visible," Ana María Díaz, coordinator of the Colombian Commission of Jurists research group, told IPS.

The CAT expert serving as rapporteur for the report on Colombia, Fernando Mariño, said in Geneva that the practice of torture apparently persists in Colombia, and lamented that "these crimes are not pursued."

"There have been very few investigations, and convictions have been scant compared to the number of complaints filed," said Mariño.

The culture of "impunity remains unchanged despite the fact that torture has been specified as a crime in Colombia for over 30 years," said lawyer Jorge Gómez Lizarazo, of Corporación Reiniciar.

"We confirm that in 30 of Colombia’s 33 departments (provinces) there have been cases of torture involving women, children, peasants, trade unionists, social activists, students, politicians and members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community," he added.

The NGOs report includes specific information on torture used as a means of political persecution, interrogation, control and punishment of prisoners, and discrimination on racial, political, gender, age or sexual orientation grounds.

The activists will also launch a signature drive to urge the government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which established, in 2006, "a system of regular visits undertaken by independent international and national bodies to places where people are deprived of their liberty, in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," as stated in article 1.

"This is a step on the path we are moving forward on. We may be advancing slowly, but we are advancing," said Díaz.

"We have begun to be heard by some Colombian institutions, like the ombudsman’s office, and that gives us some hope," said Castañeda.