The following press release was sent out by the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA), of Canada.
(May 1, 1999--TORONTO) Before a packed audience at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, the nine members of a Canadian Tribunal today concluded their public inquiry into the killing and disappearance of 32 civilians in the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja last May with a hardhitting verdict.
Not only did the Tribunal determine that the events which took place on May 16 and 17, 1998 constitute both a crime against humanity and a war crime --as defined in international law - the Tribunal also concluded that the Government of Colombia "must be held legally responsible".
"The Tribunal finds that not only was the Government of Colombia wilfully blind during the massacre, it futhermore failed to seriously investigate the crimes of May 16 and 17 and the continuing violations to date," states the verdict arrived at by the Hon. Rosemary Brown (former Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission), the Hon. Howard Pawley (former Premier and Attorney General of Manitoba), the Hon. David MacDonald (former federal Cabinet Minister and Canadian Ambassador), Chief Ted Moses (Ambassador to the United Nations, Grand Council of the Crees), Joan Grant-Cummings (President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women), Nibaldo Galleguillos (Political Science professor and human rights lawyer), William Ryan, S.J. (Director of the Jesuit Project on Ethics in Politics), M.T. Kelly (Governor General's Award-winning writer), and Madeleine Parent (respected labour organizer).
The members of the Tribunal arrived at their verdict after reviewing hundreds of pages of affidavits, official Colombian government documents and other evidence presented by Toronto criminal lawyer Jeffry House, as well as hearing the testimony of both expert witnesses and eyewitnesses to the killings and forced disappearances carried out by 30 to 50 "heavily armed men".
Notice of the Tribunal's inquiry -- which was convened by the Canadian Council of Churches -- was served on the President of Colombia and the Colombian Ambassador to Canada. Yet no official government response was received.
That paramilitary "forces" carried out the killing and disappearance of 32 civilians in Barrancabermeja was never in doubt, since their leaders publicly acknowledged that they were responsible.
But in its ground-breaking verdict, the Tribunal concluded that the Colombian military and the Colombian government were also responsible. "It defies belief that 'paramilitary vehicles' loaded with heavily armed men could have successfully passed through a military checkpoint even once, much less a second time. It is also not worthy of belief that on a second occasion the paramilitary forces could have smuggled 30 kidnapped persons past the sentries without being discovered," stated the Tribunal, which also accepted evidence that the police and military failed to answer their telephones to receive calls for help during the massacre. Nor did they investigate repeated machine gun bursts within earshot of two military facilities and within view of one of them, in contrast to "their usual response to such an occurence".
"Finally, the wilful blindness of the government is shown in the inadequate investigation of the crime by agencies of the state, clearly evidence of a desire not to discover the truth as to the identity of the guilty parties," the verdict continues.
Colombia's criminal courts have yet to prosecute anyone in this case. The Tribunal also heard that the Barrancabermeja massacre was just one of 198 documented massacres which took place in Colombia last year, most of them carried out by paramilitary forces in a context in which impunity for politically motivated killings is almost 100 percent.
This fact and the recent Pinochet case -- where the House of Lords ruled that "individual states do have jurisdiction to try some international crimes even in cases where such crimes were not committed within the geographical boundaries of such states" -- led the Tribunal to its final conclusion, one with far-reaching implications. Canada "has jurisdiction to prosecute and to penalize Colombian government officials who participated in or acquiesced in the killings and disappearances of May 16 and 17 in Barrancabermeja," reads the verdict.
The Tribunal followed its verdict by making a series of recommendations which are to be delivered, along with the verdict, to both the Colombian and the Canadian governments. Among them was a recommendation that during the visit to Canada of Colombia's President Andrés Pastrana [who visited Ottawa on May 30], Prime Minister Jean Chrétien "seek assurances from the President that a full and impartial investigation will be conducted into the massacre in Barrancabermeja."
"It is essential that those found responsible be brought to justice in order to ensure that a similar situation will not happen again," stated the Hon. Rosemary Brown, on behalf of the Tribunal. "The failure to do so," she continued, "given the Tribunal's assertion that this crime constitutes a crime against humanity and a war crime, makes it imperative that the government of Canada give notice that it will prosecute these international crimes within Canada."
The Tribunal's verdict and recommendations were welcomed enthusiastically as a huge step forward by Canadian church, human rights and labour organizations, as well as the large number of Colombian-Canadians who attended the closing session of the public inquiry. A growing number of Colombians have come to Canada in recent years as refugees, fleeing the same kind of violence which was the subject of the tribunal's inquiry.
Human rights violations in Colombia, which have caused at least a million and a half people to flee their homes, have largely escaped the international attention or action that has helped to address human rights crises in other parts of the world. Respected human rights organizations have documented links between Colombia's military and paramilitary forces, which have long been accused of carrying out the army's dirty work.
For more information or comment on the Tribunal's verdict, contact:
Kathy Price, Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, (416) 921-0801, ext. 23
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