The US Congress should tell Colombian President Álvaro Uribe that his proposal to release politicians convicted of crimes in collusion with paramilitaries jeopardizes US support for his government, Human Rights Watch said today.

Uribe will be in the United States from June 6-9 to press the US Congress to ratify a Free Trade Agreement and continue providing high levels of military assistance to Colombia.

In a letter sent to Uribe today, Human Rights Watch called on him to abandon a proposal to release politicians currently under investigation for aiding paramilitaries, in exchange for confessions. Uribe has justified his proposal by saying that it will contribute to establishing the truth. But Human Rights Watch warned that the proposal in fact risks undermining the progress being made by courts and prosecutors who are investigating paramilitaries’ political networks:

“After decades of impunity, Colombia’s courts are finally starting to shed some light on politicians’ collaboration with paramilitaries,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But in Orwellian fashion, Uribe now claims that to further the truth, the indicted politicians must go free.”

Some of the politicians in question allegedly won elections thanks to electoral fraud paramilitary violence. By letting them off the hook, the government would undermine democracy, sending the message that corruption and paramilitary infiltration of the political system are not serious problems, Human Rights Watch warned.

For months, Uribe’s government has been embroiled in major scandals over the influence at some of the highest levels of his government of the drug–running paramilitaries, who are on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Investigations initiated by Colombia’s Supreme Court have led to arrest orders for 14 Colombian congressmen, most of whom are members of Uribe’s political coalition. Many other officials, including Uribe’s former intelligence director, are also implicated in the scandals.

The extent of the infiltration has raised serious questions on Capitol Hill about US policy toward Colombia.

“It’s fair for Congress to ask, ‘Why bother investing so much in Colombia’s democratic and legal institutions when the Uribe government is taking such dramatic steps to undermine them?’” said Vivanco.

In its letter, Human Rights Watch also questioned Uribe’s plan to unilaterally release members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) who had been convicted and are serving prison terms for their crimes. The FARC regularly engages in crimes against humanity and other serious violations of the laws of war, such as hostage–taking, enforced disappearances, and recruitment of child soldiers. Human Rights Watch pointed out that a unilateral release would send the FARC the dangerous message that hostage–taking pays.

“These imprisoned FARC guerrillas did not demobilize when they had the chance,” said Vivanco. “They were caught and convicted, thanks to the sacrifices of judges, investigators and prosecutors. By releasing them before they have served their sentences, the government will reinforce the message that there is always a way to avoid accountability.”