Right-wing paramilitary leaders accused of crimes against humanity will not go to jail in Colombia if they follow through with a promise to disarm, the nation's peace commissioner said.
Luis Carlos Restrepo told international reporters Friday that the government is looking instead for alternative ways for the outlawed fighters to pay for their crimes -- such as financial compensation to families of their victims.
Colombia's paramilitary combatants are accused of some of the worst atrocities in the nation's 39-year civil war -- including massacring civilians they believed to be collaborators of leftist rebels, their arch enemy.
Human rights activists who have urged the government to punish the top leaders of all illegal armed groups were furious with the decision.
"This is absolutely unacceptable. It is the definition of impunity," said Robin Kirk of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "We are very disappointed."
Top leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the paramilitary group that earlier this week pledged to demobilize its 13,000 troops by the end of 2005, are accused of murders and massacres in Colombia. Three of the leaders also face drug trafficking charges in the US.
Whether or not the Colombian government will agree to extradite the leaders to the US has yet to be decided, Restrepo said.
According to Kirk, one of the primary dangers of failing to prosecute the paramilitary chiefs is that leaders of the leftist rebels -- who kidnap, extort and bomb Colombian civilians -- will insist on the same conditions in any future peace process.
"Do we really want to see [Jorge Briceno] running around scot-free, given all the crimes he's committed?" Kirk asked, referring to one of the leaders of the nation's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Under former president Andres Pastrana, the Colombian government ceded a Switzerland-sized territory to the FARC in 1998 to facilitate peace talks. But after years of fruitless negotiation, Pastrana retook the demilitarized zone last year.
The FARC has said it is ready to talk peace, but has demanded another safe haven and other conditions the current government refuses to accept.
The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, arose in the 1980s to counter extortion and kidnappings by the rebels in areas where government troops had little or no control. AUC leaders say they command 13,000 troops -- a number much higher than the government had previously estimated, Restrepo said.
Splinter paramilitary groups did not sign on to the AUC agreement to demobilize. Yet Restrepo said he is confident similar agreements with other paramilitary fighters will be forthcoming.
Despite his optimism, Restrepo acknowledged that the peace process with the paramilitaries is fragile and requires the fighters to strictly adhere to a ceasefire -- which they were unable to do in the last six months despite declaring an initial armistice in December.
"It's clear that they didn't completely follow through on that," Restrepo said, alluding to continued attacks on civilians by the right-wing militia.
Nearly 3,500 people, mainly civilians, die in the war each year.