Sun, Jun 10, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Colombia must pay damages for massacre


Colombia must pay US$7.8 million in damages to relatives of 12 judicial workers killed in a 1989 massacre by army-backed paramilitaries, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered.

The May 11 ruling made public by the victims' lawyers Friday is the largest yet against Colombia by the Costa Rica-based court, which investigates human rights violations when justice cannot be guaranteed in national courts. The judgment cannot be appealed.

"It's the first time that the state has been found guilty of collaborating in the murder of other agents of the state,'' said Rafael Barrios, a lawyer for the victims.

President Alvaro Uribe was in New York on Friday, and a spokesman for his office said no official was available to comment on the ruling. The government previously acknowledged its responsibility in the case and has in the past paid damages ordered by the court, an autonomous branch of the Organization of American States.

The 12 victims of the La Rochela massacre were killed while investigating another paramilitary massacre of 19 merchants in Santander state. Three judicial workers survived the massacre.

The court said the government did not fully investigate the killings or links between the cattle rancher-financed militias and army commanders. According to the court's ruling, Colombia must pay damages adding up to US$7.8 million to 99 family members of the victims.

"This case established clearer than ever the participation of the state in the creation of the paramilitary groups,'' said Michael Camilleri, a lawyer who worked on the case for the Center for Justice and International Law in Washington.

The court also ordered the government to take steps to protect judicial investigators who regularly face threats from drug traffickers, paramilitaries and other illegal armed groups.

Established in 1979 with the purpose of enforcing and interpreting region-wide treaties on human rights, the Inter-American Court's ruling are binding for the 25 nations that have submitted to its authority.

The court also criticized the government's handling of a paramilitary peace process, under which some 30,000 right-wing fighters and their warlord bosses have turned in their weapons.

It was the sixth time in the last three years that the court has ruled against Colombia for not fully investigating or compensating victims of paramilitary groups working in collusion with state officials.

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