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Since taking office in August 2002, President Álvaro Uribe has toured the United States and Europe seeking increased help to rout Colombia's illegal armed groups. Whether or not this aid will be forthcoming should depend largely on whether his government is able to curb human rights violations committed by government forces and break persistent ties between the military and right-wing paramilitaries. Unfortunately, however, he may find that he cannot count on the Colombian state's single most important mechanism for accomplishing these tasks: the Attorney General's Office.

In the past year, under the leadership of Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio, the office's ability to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses has deteriorated significantly. This deterioration is the product of several factors under the attorney general's control: a lack of support for prosecutors working on difficult human rights cases; a failure to provide adequate and timely measures to protect justice officials whose lives are threatened; and the dismissal and forced resignation of veteran prosecutors and judicial investigators.

As a result, major human rights investigations that had gathered momentum during his predecessor's term have been severely undermined under Osorio's watch. The attorney general's handling of these cases is likely to encourage the common perception among military and paramilitary forces that human rights abuses are an acceptable form of warfare.

Within days of taking office on July 31, 2001, Attorney General Osorio forced the resignations of the director and former director of the specialized Human Rights Unit. Over the following months, he continued purging the office of officials who had worked on sensitive human rights cases and sent a clear message to those who remained that efforts to prosecute human rights violations committed by army officers would not be welcome. Over a dozen current and former justice officials described Osorio as having damaged morale among prosecutors and investigators and undermined the prospects of achieving justice in key cases.

Under international law, Colombia has an obligation to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses. For many years, the country failed to meet this obligation, allowing major atrocities to go unpunished. Then, in 1995, the Attorney General's Office established a special Human Rights Unit to investigate and prosecute human rights crimes. Over the next six years, the unit made significant progress on a wide range of important cases involving army and police personnel, paramilitaries, and guerrillas.

Progress on these cases is critical in determining whether Colombia is meeting the conditions that currently regulate U.S. military aid. The conditions specifically require that the Colombian military cooperate with civilian justice officials prosecuting human rights cases. They also require the military to sever links with the country's abusive paramilitary groups, a goal most effectively served by the prosecution of military officers known to have collaborated with the paramilitaries.

In recognition of the important work of the Attorney General's Office, the United States has, since 2000, invested over $25 million in the office. In addition to providing the office with needed training and equipment, it has funded the creation of eleven new satellite Human Rights Units in cities beyond the capital, Bogotá. It should be of particular concern to the U.S. government, therefore, that many of the justice officials forced from their jobs in the past year were those who had received special training in the United States, headed satellite units, or participated as instructors in programs run by the U.S. Department of Justice. It should also be troubling that the attorney general has responded to international concern about human rights cases by publicly accusing members of the U.S. Congress, several European governments, and international NGOs of engaging in a "war" to discredit Colombian authorities.

Unless concrete steps are taken to restore the effectiveness of the Attorney General's Office, Colombia could lose one of its most important mechanisms for curbing human rights violations and fortifying the rule of law. To reverse this dangerous trend, the Colombian government should take the following steps:

    · ensure the autonomy and impartiality of prosecutors and investigators within the Human Rights Unit by limiting the ability of the attorney general to fire prosecutors and investigators without cause;

    · issue a presidential directive that emphasizes the importance of the work of the Human Rights Unit followed by frequent, public expressions of support from the president, his ministers, and the security forces leadership;

    · ensure that the attorney general has hired experienced professionals able to administer the Human Rights Unit and related agencies with the highest level of independence;

    · increase the resources available to Human Rights Unit prosecutors and investigators for transportation, forensic technology, training and basic administration;

    · ensure that current and former judicial officers facing credible threats related to their work on human rights cases receive adequate police protection, even after they have left office.

The United States government should:

    · make clear to the president of Colombia that the State Department will not be able to certify progress on human rights unless the attorney general stops undermining human rights investigations and can demonstrate significant progress on human rights cases;

    · urge President Uribe to use his own authority as president and commander-in-chief to suspend officers who are credibly alleged to have committed human rights violations and who have aided and abetted the abuses committed by illegal paramilitary groups;

    · revise legislation to include a reporting requirement on progress by the Attorney General's Office on key human rights cases.

    · commission a General Accounting Office report on the effectiveness of U.S. aid to Colombia's Attorney General's Office and specifically the Human Rights Unit;

    · provide the Human Rights Unit increased funding to purchase basic tools, like telephones, computers, and fax machines;

    · express publicly, via the embassy and visits by administration and military officials, support for the vital work of human rights prosecutors and judicial officials.

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