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Human Rights Watch called a Colombian military tribunal's verdict in a massacre case part of a continuing cover-up of Army complicity in human rights crimes. The tribunal sentenced General Jaime Uscátegui to
forty months in prison for his involvement in the 1997 Mapiripán massacre.

"This works out to a little more than a month for each Colombian murdered in Mapiripán," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "It is far too light a sentence to deter future such acts, bearing little relation to the seriousness of the crimes at issue."

As this case exemplifies, high ranking officers who arrange and assist atrocities continue to be shielded by military tribunals. "President Pastrana has said that he will ensure that such tribunals no longer deal with human rights cases," said Vivanco, "This verdict is proof that they continue to shield officers from justice."

Paramilitary groups working with the tolerance or support of the Colombian military are considered responsible for nearly 80 percent of all human rights violations documented last year in Colombia.

In July 1997, paramilitaries working with the Colombian Army killed more than thirty residents of Mapiripán, Meta. Judge Leonardo Iván Cortés tried to alert authorities, including the military, with urgent messages describing the macabre scene that lasted a full five days. "Each night they kill groups of five to six defenseless people, who are cruelly and monstrously massacred after being tortured," he said. "The screams of humble people are audible, begging for mercy and asking for help." Judge Cortés was later forced to leave Colombia with his family because of threats on his life. Dozens of others fled the village, joining Colombia's massive population of internally displaced.

Subsequent investigations by civilian prosecutors reveal that troops under General Uscátegui's command welcomed paramilitaries who arrived at the San José del Guaviare airport, helped them load their trucks, and ensured that local troops who could have fought the paramilitaries were engaged elsewhere. General Uscátegui ignored alerts about the massacre, and a subordinate testified that the general later ordered him to falsify documents to cover up his complicity in it.

Not withstanding this evidence, the military tribunal found the general guilty only of "erring by omission," or failing to act when informed of the massacre. The same tribunal acquitted Uscátegui of the much more serious charges of crimes against humanity, terrorism, lying and conspiracy.

Also convicted yesterday was Col. Hernán Orozco, the officer who first alerted General Uscátegui to reports of a massacre. Orozco later cooperated with civilian investigators, and his testimony helped Colombia's Attorney General prepare formal charges against Uscátegui for aiding and abetting paramilitary groups. However, jurisdiction over the case was awarded to the military courts, which has long been one of the cornerstones of impunity in Colombia.

Orozco later asked that his case be sent to a civilian court for prosecution, arguing that he would not receive a fair trial. Yesterday's verdict included a sentence for Orozco of thirty-eight months. His crime was characterized as "failing to insist" that a superior officer send troops, an absurdity given that he had notified Uscátegui promptly of reports coming from Mapiripán.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the Colombian government to enforce its law requiring that allegations of human rights violations committed by security force officers be investigated and tried by civilian courts, not military tribunals.

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