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The Colombian government has mischaracterized Human Rights Watch’s position on the extradition of paramilitary leaders, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a May 13 press statement, the Colombian government claimed that Human Rights Watch had contradicted itself by “attack[ing] the Government of Colombia for its failure to extradite the paramilitary leaders and now attack[ing] it because it has extradited them.”

Yet Human Rights Watch’s position on extradition of paramilitaries has not changed. The criticism of the Colombian government’s approach to extradition has always been for its failure to ensure that the option of extradition was used effectively to advance efforts to dismantle paramilitary groups and bring paramilitary leaders and accomplices to justice, in particular for human rights abuses. The risk of extradition has historically been the most effective option for the government to convince paramilitary leaders that they should cooperate with investigations, surrender their assets, and abandon their criminal activities.

Human Rights Watch has criticized the Colombian government in the past for failing to extradite paramilitary leaders who have refused to meet their obligations as part of Colombia’s paramilitary demobilization process. However, the timing of the mass extradition of virtually all the key paramilitary leaders at once raises serious questions about the government’s commitment to uncovering the truth about paramilitaries’ infiltration of the political system. Just as prosecutors and judges have been making real progress in unraveling the web of paramilitary links to government officials and politicians, the paramilitary leaders who know the most about these links have been sent out of the country.

Human Rights Watch welcomes the prospect that the extradited paramilitary bosses could now serve substantial prison sentences in the United States for some of their drug crimes. It is also positive, now that these commanders are no longer in Colombia, that they will face great difficulties in continuing to manage their mafias.

It will now be up to justice authorities in the United States to ensure that paramilitary leaders’ extradition does not lead to impunity for their own or their accomplices’ crimes. US justice authorities should explore all possible avenues to hold paramilitary commanders accountable in the United States not only for their drug trafficking crimes but also for their human rights abuses.

Both US and Colombian officials maintain that there will be no obstacle to the extradited paramilitary leaders’ future collaboration with criminal investigations in Colombia. The challenge, however, will be for US justice authorities to create meaningful legal incentives for these mafia bosses to fully disclose information about their atrocities and their accomplices within the military and the political system in Colombia without compromising the important principle that their punishment should be commensurate with their horrible crimes.

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