The announced resignation of the auxiliary Supreme Court magistrate Iván Velásquez represents a major loss for Colombia’s justice system, Human Rights Watch said today. Velásquez’s resignation, effective September 30, 2012, followed the sudden decision by the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court to remove him as coordinator of investigations into ties between right-wing paramilitary groups and members of Congress, known as the “parapolitics” investigations.
Under his leadership of parapolitics investigations during the past five years, the Supreme Court has convicted approximately 50 former members of Congress for links to paramilitary groups. The Colombian media have often referred to Velásquez as the “star magistrate of parapolitics.” As a consequence of his work, he has been the target of smear efforts and illegal surveillance. In 2008, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted him precautionary measures.
“Velásquez’s courageous efforts set a standard for the pursuit of justice for human rights abuses in Colombia,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “All eyes will be on Colombia’s Supreme Court to see how the investigations move forward without him.”
In an August 23 news release, the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court stated that the reason for Velásquez’s removal was to “rotate the responsibilities assigned to the employees” of the court. This explanation has raised questions since Velásquez had been the coordinator of the parapolitics investigations since the position was created in 2007.
In its August 23 statement, the criminal chamber also strongly criticizedtwo leading columnists who had questioned the decision to remove Velásquez from his position. The statement said the criminal chamber would file a criminal libel complaint against one of the journalists, Cecilia Orozco Tascón. The statement called Orozco’s column “denigrating,” “offensive,” and “twisted.” Following an outpouring of public condemnation, on August 27 the criminal chamber announced that it would not file a complaint against the journalist.
As stated by the Organization of American States’ Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, the Inter-American Commission has held that the use of criminal law to punish speech concerning public officials in itself violates Article 13 of the American Convention. Furthermore, with regard to civil sanctions, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled that, “in the domain of political debate on issues of great public interest, not only is the expression of statements which are well [received] by […] public opinion and those which are deemed to be harmless protected, but also the expression of statements which shock, [offend] or disturb public officials or [a] sector of society.”
“Instead of censuring the press through the threat of criminal libel complaints, Colombia’s Supreme Court should provide a full explanation of why Velásquez was removed from a position in which he had remarkable success,” Vivanco said.