By Luis Jaime Acosta
BOGOTA (Reuters) – A Colombian court on Tuesday accused 10 members of the military and a civilian of forcibly disappearing 24 people and murdering at least 120 civilians and falsely presenting them as guerrilla fighters who had been killed in combat.
This is the first time Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal has accused members of Colombia’s army in connection with the so-called false positives scandal, in which soldiers murdered civilians and classified them as rebels killed in combat so they could receive promotions or other benefits.
The defendants played a decisive role in the murders, which were presented as combat deaths in the Catatumbo region of Colombia’s Norte de Santander province between January 2007 and August 2008, in order to inflate body counts, the court said.
The accused, identified by the JEP as those responsible for giving orders without which the crimes would not have systematically happened, include a general, six officers, three non-commissioned officers, and a civilian.
“It was a pattern of macrocriminality, which is to say, the repetition of at least 120 murders during two years in the same region by the same group of people associated with a criminal organization and following the same modus operandi,” said magistrate Catalina Diaz.
Victims included farmers and retailers, among others, she said.
The JEP is a tribunal created under the 2016 peace deal to prosecute former FARC members and military leaders for alleged war crimes.
At least 6,402 people were murdered by members of Colombia’s army between 2002 and 2008 according to the JEP, while some victims groups say the figure could be higher.
Dozens of army officers who have been detained and convicted for their part in the scandal have testified before the JEP as they seek more lenient sentences.
If those accused on Tuesday do not accept the charges within 30 days, they could receive a sentence of up to 20 years in jail in a civilian court, said magistrate and JEP president Eduardo Cifuentes.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Aurora Ellis)