Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebel commander 'Timochenko' on Wednesday shook hands — firmly, but drawn together physically by Cuban President Raul Castro — as both sides in Colombia's armed conflict announced breakthrough agreements to end the hemisphere's longest war.
The moment in Havana, although awkward, provided a stirring image of reconciliation after decades of mutual contempt and distrust between Colombia's government and largest rebel army, and amid a stubbornly skeptical mood back in Colombia over the prospect for peace after more than five decades of war.
The leaders said the peace talks should be concluded in "no later than six months," meaning Colombia could theoretically see a peace agreement by March 2016. Once a final deal is signed, the rebels will have 60 days to abandon their weapons and demobilize.
"We will not fail," Santos said. "The hour of peace is here."
A key development marked Wednesday's announcement.
Combatants in the conflict who accept guilt for serious offenses such as human-rights abuses or war crimes will face sentences of five to eight years of "restricted liberty." To qualify, the combatants will need to commit to social rehabilitation — through employment, training, or study — while they complete their sentence. Those who hesitate to accept guilt will receive five to eight years of prison in "ordinary conditions." Those who refuse to cooperate, if found guilty for abuses, could face up to 20 years in jail.
Until today, the peace talks had been fraught with impasses over prison sentences. The FARC's chief negotiator Ivan Marquez told reporters in February that "for the rebels there will be zero jail time."
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As previously expected, the FARC-EP, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia/People's Army, will become a legal political party, the leaders announced.
On Wednesday, Timochenko appeared to accept the prospect of prison time for rebels, who are accused of scores of abuses against non-combatant citizens over the course of the FARC's campaign against the government. Colombia's military and paramilitary forces are also accused of extrajudicial killings and so-called "false positive" executions of innocent civilians.
"Special jurisdiction for peace is for all the actors in the conflict," Timochenko said.
Santos sat one seat away from Timochenko, the nom de guerre for a figure known as Timoleón Jiménez, with President Castro sitting between them. After their statements, Castro coaxed the two to shake hands.
More than 220,000 people have died in Colombia's war since 1960. More than 6 million have been displaced.
Still, the new developments were met were harsh skepticism by Colombians active on social media. "Narco-terrorists of the FARC and EP kill half the country and will only pay five years, maximum eight, what a mockery of the people," one Colombian wrote on Twitter.
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Joe Parkin Daniels and Joan Camejo contributed to this report.
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