International humanitarian law requires that all parties to a conflict treat captured combatants humanely. This means that the FARC-EP is obligated to extend humane treatment to all members of opposing forces who are in its custody.30
In discussions with Human Rights Watch in June 2000, FARC-EP commanders acknowledged the importance of this principle. When asked to specify what rules of international humanitarian law the FARC-EP complies with, commanders uniformly singled out the humane treatment of captured combatants.31
Yet Human Rights Watch is concerned that the FARC-EP has not even complied with these norms. We have received testimony indicating that several captured combatants have been denied medical attention, among them Colombian National Police (CNP) Col. Álvaro León Acosta, captured on April 5, 2000, near Tuluá, Valle, after his helicopter crashed. According to Acosta's family and the CNP, during his fourteen-month captivity he suffered from serious ailments stemming from a back injury sustained in the crash that went untreated.32
According to an association of family members that was allowed to visit 261 detainees in February 2001, one police agent, Manuel Alejandro Martínez, suffered serious burns prior to his capture and requires surgery. Others are said to have a variety of jungle diseases that have gone untreated, including malaria, fungi, constant diarrhea because of contaminated water, and leishmaniasis, which can be fatal if untreated. Many reportedly suffer severe trauma and psychological ailments from prolonged captivity under harsh conditions.33 Moreover, according to family members' reports, the detainees are kept in rudimentary shelters that lack proper drainage, sanitation, and clean water.34
On June 5, 2001, the Colombian government and FARC-EP finalized an agreement that led to the release that same day of Acosta and the three police agents who were seized with him after the crash.35 In a subsequent interview with the news weekly Semana from his hospital bed, Acosta recounted how his untreated injuries caused him excruciating pain and drove him to the brink of suicide three times. His primary care came from his fellow captives and a FARC-EP guerrilla he identified as a nurse who supplied him with sedatives that had virtually no effect.36
Subsequently, the FARC-EP released over 300 additional police and soldiers held after capture, some also seriously ill.37 In exchange, the government released from prison eleven FARC-EP members also reportedly ill.38
Reports indicated, however, that not all captives who were seriously ill were among those first released. The FARC-EP selected the prisoners to be released and did not allow independent organizations, like the ICRC, to examine those who remained.39 At present, the FARC acknowledges holding forty-seven such detainees.40
30 For the requirement that detained persons be treated humanely, see article 5, Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II).
32 Human Rights Watch electronic mail communication with Marleny Orjuela Manjarres, President, Asociación Colombiana de Familiares de Miembros de la Fuerza Pública Retenidos por Grupos Guerrilleros (ASFAMIPAZ), March 31, 2001; and "`Si no lo entregan, muere: Gilibert'," El Tiempo, December 24, 2000.
35 The agents were John Alexander Ruiz Marín, Harold González, and José Murillo Balcázar. "Agreement between the government and FARC-EP," June 5, 2001, signed by Camilo Gómez Alzate, High Commissioner for Peace, and Jorge Briceño and Joaquín Gómez, FARC-EP; and "Terminó el drama del coronel Álvaro Acosta," El Colombiano, June 6, 2001.