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Colombia’s Prosecutor Wants Probe of Former President for Paramilitary Massacre

The possible probe comes as the government moves closer to signing a peace deal with rebels.

by Joe Parkin Daniels
Oct 7 2015, 8:40pm

Photo by Fernando Vergara/AP

Colombia's chief public prosecutor has called on the country's Supreme Court to investigate former president Alvaro Uribe for his possible role in a 1997 massacre carried out by paramilitaries.

"We are doing our duty to investigate serious violations of human rights," Eduardo Montealegre, the prosecutor, told local media on Tuesday after making the request to the court. "The peace process [in Colombia] must be built without impunity, and that includes eliminating impunity for paramilitaries, and for members of state forces that committed serious human rights abuses."

The call to investigate Uribe comes in the middle of an intense debate in Colombia over who should be tried for war crimes if a promised 2016 peace deal with the country's biggest rebel group comes through.

Since 1960, more than 220,000 people have died in Colombia's war between the state, the rebels, the paramilitaries, and the drug cartels. More than six million have been displaced.

Last month the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, negotiated a breakthrough justice accord that would open the way for actors on both sides of the conflict to be tried in special tribunals once their half-century-long war is officially over.

Uribe led a fierce military offensive against the rebels during his presidency from 2002-2008 and is a figurehead for those who want to see continued military action against them. He has also long been accused of collusion with paramilitary death squads that committed numerous atrocities during the conflict, sometimes on behalf of the government.

Related: Colombia Will See Peace in Six Months, President and FARC Leader Announce

The El Aro Massacre took place in 1997 when the former president was governor of Antioquia, a northwestern department that has been particularly battered by the war.

Uribe has consistently denied any link to the massacre in which members of paramilitary group AUC — the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia — took over the village of El Aro, allegedly to look for hostages taken by the FARC. The three-day occupation left 15 people dead, women rape victims, and the village razed.

"I am used to slander," Uribe tweeted on Tuesday, after the prosecutor's call for the probe against him.

Uribe also told reporters that he believed the move to investigate him suggested that President Juan Manuel Santos, who served in Uribe's government as his defense secretary, had made a deal with FARC military leader Ricardo Londoño, alias Timochenko, and Diego Murillo, a former AUC leader known as Don Berna with alleged ties to the former president.

The AUC, once a large network of paramilitary organizations, were dismantled between 2006 and 2008 in a process negotiated by Uribe's administration and widely criticized for being ineffective.

According to the Colombian news magazine Semana, Montealegre's office has requested the testimony of Don Berna, who was extradited to the United States in 2008 on drug trafficking charges.

A 2006 ruling by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights already concluded that state forces were complicit in the massacre at El Aro, and ordered the government to pay reparations to victims.  A domestic investigation into whether Uribe was directly complicit, however, would break new ground.

While prominent left wing senator Ivan Cepeda celebrated the prosecutor's call for a probe as  "justified and long overdue," other politicians lined up behind Uribe.  They included Attorney General Alejandro Ordoñez who suggested the chief prosecutor was bowing to a guerrilla demand. "It's does peace a disservice when we see court proceedings used as a means of revenge against those who fought the FARC," he told reporters.

Related: Can a Truth Commission in Colombia Help Heal the Wounds of War's Atrocities?

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan