A Colombian judge on Wednesday issued a landmark judgment against army colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega for the forced disappearance of 11 people after the 1985 hostage situation at the Palace of Justice in Bogota, sentencing him to 30 years in prison. The palace siege was one of the deadliest incidents during the decades of internal conflict in Bogota, leaving more than 100 people dead. The judge stated that although Vega did not directly commit the crimes, he was the commander of the military during the raid and is therefore responsible for the actions of his men [El Tiempo report, in Spanish]. The 11 victims allegedly survived the raid but were taken away by the army and never seen again. The case was opened in 2006 when video footage emerged showing several of the victims being forcibly removed from the palace grounds. Amnesty International (AI) [advocacy website] praised the ruling [press release], calling it a victory over that nation's military courts, which have sought jurisdiction over similar cases in order to protect former army officials from prosecution. AI Colombia researcher Marcelo Pollack expressed the significance of Wednesday's ruling:
The Colombian authorities tried to bury the truth about the Palace of Justice despite overwhelming evidence that members of the security forces orchestrated the enforced disappearance, torture and execution of some of those inside. ... With this groundbreaking ruling the victims' families, who for almost a quarter of a century have campaigned for justice, have begun to break the silence that has for so long protected those responsible.Defense lawyers for Vega said they would appeal the judgment.
The 1985 conflict began when left-wing rebels took judges hostage in the Palace of Justice and planned to stage a political trial of then-president Belisario Betancur. The army responded by raiding the building resulting in a 27-hour assault, which left the palace burned to the ground. More than 20,000 people have disappeared over the past 30 years of internal conflict in Colombia. In October, Colombian prosecutor Luis Gonzalez said that at least 27,384 civilians disappeared between 1988 and 2002 [JURIST report], with nearly 75 percent of them allegedly kidnapped by illegal right-wing militias. The government's Justice and Peace Office [official website, in Spanish] compiled the list after a three-year investigation of forced disappearances that included testimonies of the relatives of the missing persons. Under the 2005 Justice and Peace law [AI backgrounder, JURIST report], more than 25,000 militants have demobilized, confessed to murders, and led officials to the graves of 2,300 Colombians. The controversial law has been criticized [JURIST report] for giving lesser punishments to paramilitary leaders who voluntarily disarm. Last year, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe [official profile, in Spanish] urged [JURIST report] Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) [CFR backgrounder] guerrillas to abandon arms and release political hostages, promising those who respond to the call a reward and freedom.