By Laura Dulce Romero, EL ESPECTADOR, April 20, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Sergio Arboleda Góngora, attorney for the Corporación Jurídica Libertad (Legal Freedom Corporation) and representing the Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado (Movice in Spanish) (National Movement of Victims of Crimes by the Government), says that it was a surprise when the Victims Unit requested dismissal of a case that seeks to search for people who have disappeared, and for the investigation of human rights violations.
Last week the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) issued a decision that astonished more than a few people: it rejected the Victims Unit motion to dismiss the proceedings on injunctive relief that protect 17 locations where people who have disappeared may be buried. The injunctive relief had been requested by the National Movement of Victims of Crimes by the Government (Movice) in September 2018.
According to the JEP, the central argument of that petition was that the Victims Unit had not been considered during the proceeding. The Transitional Justice Court responded that, since the Victims Unit was not a party to the action, it could only take part in case the Justices might require it, for the collection of information, for example, or for reports on reparations, which could help them to provide background.
The response by the JEP was not a surprise, but the petition by the Victims Unit was. After the news came out in the communications media, the social organizations that make up Movice could not understand why an entity that is supposed to stand up for the rights of victims “now is like a stone in the shoe of the effort to help and support them.”
That phrase comes from Sergio Arboleda Góngora, attorney for the Legal Freedom Corporation and who represents Movice in the case. In an interview with this paper he analyzed the position of the victims and the human rights organizations in the situation. In addition, he explained that it’s about their request for injunctive relief, made two years ago and which, according to the attorney, has helped to reveal to the whole country some truths that had not been known before, like the cases of extrajudicial executions in Dabeiba (Antioquia Province).
Why does Movice request injunctive relief from the JEP?
The peace process and the implementation of Point 5 on the creation of a system of transitional justice allowed us to start generating measures to protect places where people who have been victims of forced disappearance may be buried. The official figures talk about more than 86,000 people being forcibly disappeared; however, the number may be much higher. The organizations went to the JEP because we needed to have those places preserved. If the Unit had been allowed to intervene, it might have put at risk the bodies of people that we believe are buried there, and no one would ever know what happened to them.
How did you decide on those 17 locations?
We have identified them. Movice is made up of a number of human rights and victims’ organizations that have worked on cases of violations of human rights and of International Humanitarian Law (DIH in Spanish). For years it has complained of the crimes and has provided the government with evidence of murders at the hands of legal and illegal armed groups. The subject of Dabeiba (Antioquia Province), for example, is nothing new. There have been reports of extrajudicial executions in the cemetery of that Municipality. The subject of Ward 13 in Medellín is not new either. It’s just that now we have a mechanism that has allowed us to go forward with the cases that we had started in the ordinary justice system. We told the JEP that we had been searching up to now and asked them to help, using the power that the law gives them, to protect the sites, to recover the bodies, and thus to guarantee the rights of the victims that want to find their families.
What success have you had in the case where you asked the JEP for injunctive relief?
Quite a bit. We have made progress in four locations. One example is Ward 13, where there were military operations and later on it was under paramilitary control. And there were the garbage dumps, burial places where, according to the victims, there are 300 bodies, but the number is not yet known. The JEP held a public hearing with all of the public entities to collect information in order to make an appropriate analysis, and they wondered what had happened to the complaints that had been filed. We saw that the institutions fell short of implementing the required procedures. They were always deaf to the petitions of the victims.
Later on we made progress with the disappearances in the Hidroituango catchment basin, an area that was affected by the conflict. We informed the Transitional Justice Court that before the megaproject was built and the area was flooded, it was necessary to determine whether or not there were bodies buried there of people who had disappeared. There was a hearing in which there were also some amazing revelations.
Another case was the case of Dabeiba, one of the ones that had the most impact on public opinion. It wasn’t new to us, but for the country, it was a powerful truth about the extrajudicial executions committed by the Armed Forces. Also because they public learned about the voluntary testimony of soldiers involved in those cases. We believe that that municipal cemetery is just one small example of a cemetery affected by the extrajudicial executions. We turned over a report on Eastern Antioquia, where we believe there are many more cases like that found in Dabeiba. But also from that episode we learned that it was a door that has taken us to some truths that we really knew, but what many would not admit: the relation between the government and the paramilitaries.
And finally we have the case of San Onofre. We have been there but that has yet to go forward. Now with the pandemic, everything is on hold. If you ask me what all this has achieved, I would answer that many things have been achieved: forced disappearance is on the agenda again—that’s important to everybody—and the JEP is able to obtain information that, even though we have filed complaints, now the information is making clear who was responsible, such as the military. There has been a significant change in the cases. But there is still much more to investigate.
When did Movice find out that the Victims Unit had moved to dismiss our cases and what are your thoughts about their action?
When the news media published the story, we were surprised by several aspects of their motion. First, the posture of the Victims Unit, because it is giving more weight to their role as an entity than to the rights of the victims. This motion is contrary to the rights of the victims. We were just talking about all of the advances we have had in finding the truth and protecting these places, and what the Unit is doing is ignoring that and turning itself into a stone in their shoe as the Transitional Justice Court is trying to investigate these human rights violations. What is worrisome is that for many years they have been revictimizing the victims of crimes by the government, and now it’s happening again. This is a barricade against victims. But more than that, we are surprised at their manner of expressing their disagreement legally and eliminating any possibility of dialog. Their motion is focused on undoing everything that has been done in the whole case, including the injunctive relief; that’s to say, all that we have accomplished with Movice and the events uncovered, because the Unit is not a party to the action. Because the parties to the action are the victims, the Unit for Investigation and Prosecution (UIA in Spanish), the alleged killer, and his defense. The victims and the Inspector General are special intervening parties. The Victims Unit has never been given the authority to be a party to the action. Movice is not even a party. We can’t understand how they would request something that they know is not possible in this case. And it’s not that they are asking to represent the victims in the cases; that is the Inspector General’s job.
Is the motion to dismiss a political act?
Yes. The Victims Unit position is that the injunctive relief is an act of revictimization. But that’s not new either. Historically, the Victims Unit has revictimized people affected by the armed conflict. For a lot of victims of crimes by the government, for example, they don’t even admit it. And now they’re doing that again, because they are trying to cut short a case that will help some people find out where their family member is. What is sad and worrying is that they’re being a dog in the manger, because neither have they contributed anything to investigating the events.
When you started with this process, did you at any time have contact with the Victims Unit?
We have been critical of the Victims Unit, but beyond that, we believe that the competent entity is the JEP, which has the authority to order the injunctive relief over the 17 locations. That means that it’s the Court that can give official notice to the different entities, to give them information and take other steps. In San Onofre, for example, their help was requested for investigating doubts about the collective reparations. Movice only carried out the role of requesting the protection and furnishing information to the Court about the organizations. In some cases, we help in the coordination of the investigations, but that is an operational matter aimed at guaranteeing the victims’ rights.
What did you think of the JEP’s response to their motion?
We think they gave the correct decision. They took apart their arguments one by one; they told them that their right to due process was not affected; and that they could not be considered a party to the action or a special intervenor in this case. We believe that it was a good answer because it protects the victims. In addition you have to recognize that it was a good teaching exercise by the JEP. In the ordinary justice system, a judge would not even have responded with the argument that they were not a party to the action, but here they took the trouble to respond and explain their ruling.
Was there anything in the JEP response that you didn’t agree with or had doubts about?
At the end we just had one question, since they did connect with the Victims Unit, but they never specified how that would work. We’ll have to ask the Justices that.