WASHINGTON (AP) — Human Rights Watch says that sworn testimony from six Colombian generals implicates the former head of the U.S.-backed army in the extrajudicial killings of civilians.
The Washington-based group on Tuesday revealed the testimony against retired army Gen. Mario Montoya, saying it fears that an investigation of him launched last year has stalled and crimes by the military go unpunished under the terms of a peace deal with leftist rebels intended to judge atrocities committed on all sides during the country's half-century conflict.
Montoya is a close ally of former President Alvaro Uribe who headed the army when the so-called "false positives" scandal broke in 2008. The revelation that security forces killed thousands of civilians from 2002-2008 to inflate body counts on which bonuses and vacations were based have tarnished the military's reputation. But so far, it has led to only a handful of charges against high-ranking officers.
Human Rights Watch said in October it obtained access to hundreds of pages of transcribed testimony that six current and retired generals made to prosecutors in closed hearings.
Among them was the account of the former head of the armed forces who told prosecutors that in 2007 he and Montoya, along with President Juan Manuel Santos, who was then the defense minister, received complaints about the extrajudicial killings monthly by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Another general said he received orders to burn directives establishing rewards for soldiers who reported a high number of killings.
Such testimony would suggest that Montoya had detailed knowledge of the implausible circumstances surrounding many of the combat deaths even though he appears not to have moved to stop them.
Montoya has been under investigation since 2015 but prosecutors recently suspended a hearing in which he was set to be charged.
"It's time for the prosecutor to use this important evidence it has on hand to advance in the case," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch.
A former ambassador to the Dominican Republic under Uribe, Montoya rose through the army's ranks despite longstanding accusations by rights groups that he allowed abuses by paramilitary groups in a 2002 military takeover of a slum in the western city of Medellin. He has long denied any wrongdoing and his lawyer said in response to the report that the leaked testimony, if confirmed, constitutes a serious violation of his client's right to a fair defense.
Human Rights Watch as well as the United Nations has also raised doubts about provisions in the peace accord to judge the military's crimes. Under the terms of the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, special peace tribunals are tasked with judging atrocities committed by rebels and the military alike.
But a last-minute change introduced by the government hours before last month's signing ceremony removed language that Vivanco says could allow military commanders to go unpunished for the civilian killings. Under international humanitarian law, commanders are criminally liable when they knew or should have known that subordinates were committing a crime but failed to take the necessary and reasonable steps to prevent or punish the acts.
Under the peace accord's revised terms, the definition of command responsibility has been narrowed, Vivanco said, requiring prosecutors to demonstrate that military commanders actually knew about and had control over their subordinates' actions when they committed the crimes.
"You need to prove that they essentially were accomplices," said Vivanco. "But normally the commanders weren't at the scene of the crimes. They were at their desks and just signed off on the fabricated reports."
Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.