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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Colombia's present constitution, enacted in July 1991, strengthened the administration of justice with the provision for introduction of an accusatorial system which ultimately is to replace entirely the existing Napoleonic Code. Other significant reforms under the new constitution provide for civil divorce, dual nationality, the election of a vice president, and the election of departmental governors. The constitution expanded citizens' basic rights, including that of "tutela," under which an immediate court action can be requested by an individual if he or she feels that their constitutional rights are being violated and if there is no other legal recourse.

The national government has executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as an independent Attorney General (Fiscal) elected for a 4-year term by the Congress. The president is elected for a 4-year term and cannot be re-elected. The 1991 constitution reestablished the position of vice president, who is elected on the same ticket as the president. By law, the vice president will succeed in the event of the president's resignation, illness, or death.

Colombia's bicameral Congress consists of a 102-member Senate and a 161-member House of Representatives. Senators are elected on the basis of a nationwide ballot, while representatives are elected in multimember districts co-located within the 32 national departments.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Courts & Judgments

Guidelines and the general structure for Colombia's administration of justice are set out in Law 270 of March 7, 1996. Colombia's legal system has recently begun to incorporate some elements of an oral, accusatorial system.

The judiciary includes the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Council of State (the appellate court for civil cases), the Superior Judicial Council, and lower courts. The CSJ, which oversees the administration of the judiciary, also has responsibility for determining whether cases involving members of the security forces are to be tried in civilian or military courts. The Prosecutor General's office is an independent prosecutorial body that brings criminal cases before the courts.

The Constitutional Court adjudicates cases of constitutionality, reviews all decisions regarding writs of protection of fundamental rights ("tutelas"), and reviews all decisions regarding motions for cessation of judicial proceedings. Jurisdictional clashes among the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Council of State, and the CSJ were common, due to the lack of a single supreme judicial authority capable of deciding issues of jurisdiction or constitutional interpretation.

As part of the Ministry of Defense, the military judiciary falls under the executive branch, rather than under the judicial branch. The lack of transparency and accountability in the workings of the military judiciary contribute to a general lack of confidence in the system's ability to bring human rights abusers to justice. The new Military Penal Code, which entered into effect in August 2000, denied unit commanders the power to judge subordinates; called for the creation of an independent military judicial corps; and provided legal protection for service members who refuse to obey illegal orders to commit human rights abuses. The reformed code does not allow torture, genocide, and forced disappearance to be related to acts of service--the constitutional standard for trying crimes in the military judiciary. Therefore, these crimes must be tried in the civilian judiciary. In August 2000, the President issued a directive to the armed forces and the police that excluded from military criminal jurisdiction the crimes of genocide, torture, forced disappearance, and acts against humanity.

The new military justice system is composed of magistrates of the Military Court of Appeals, lower military court judges, investigating judges, prosecutors, and judge advocates (auditor de guerra) at the General Inspector, division, and brigade levels. The Executive Director of the Military Penal Justice, Corps Brigadier General Jairo Pineda, reports directly to the Minister of Defense, a civilian. Military prosecutors report to Brigadier General Pineda, not to unit commanders as under the previous system. The new Military Penal Code provides for the right of representatives of the civilian judiciary to be present at military trials of military personnel.

A 1997 Constitutional Court decision transferred jurisdiction for the investigation and prosecution of serious human rights violations and other alleged crimes not related directly to acts of service from the military judicial system to the civilian judiciary. (Previously the CSJ assigned most cases involving high-level military personnel to the military courts, where convictions in human rights-related cases were rare.) The Constitutional Court ruled that, in the case of doubt, jurisdiction should be assigned to the civilian system. However, in 1998 the CSJ determined that it was not bound by the Constitutional Court's 1997 decision. In that instance the CSJ's decision ended a civilian investigation of the relationship between Brigadier General Fernando Millan and paramilitary groups in Santander department.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Human Rights The Colombian Government's human rights record remained poor in 2001; there were continued efforts to improve the legal framework and institutional mechanisms, but implementation lagged, and serious problems remained in many areas. A small percentage of total human right abuses reported are attributed to state security forces; however, government security forces continued to commit serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings. Impunity remained a problem. Despite some prosecutions and convictions, the authorities rarely brought higher-ranking officers of the security forces and the police charged with human rights offenses to justice. Members of the security forces collaborated with paramilitary groups that committed abuses, in some instances allowing such groups to pass through roadblocks, sharing information, or providing them with supplies or ammunition. Despite increased government efforts to combat and capture members of paramilitary groups, security forces also often failed to take action to prevent paramilitary attacks. Paramilitary forces still find support among the military and police, as well as among local civilian populations in many areas.

The revised Military Penal Code, which took effect in August 2000, provides for an independent military judicial corps and for legal protection for troops if they refuse to carry out illegal orders to commit human rights abuses; the code also precludes unit commanders from judging subordinates. A series of military reform decrees, signed by the President in September 2000, provided greater facility for the military to remove human rights abusers or paramilitary collaborators from its ranks and provided for the further professionalization of the public security forces. The military judiciary continued to demonstrate an increased willingness to turn cases involving security force officers accused of serious human rights violations over to the civilian judiciary, as required by a 1997 Constitutional Court ruling, the new Military Penal Code, and an August 2000 presidential directive.

Police, prison guards, and military forces tortured and mistreated detainees. Conditions in the overcrowded and underfunded prisons are harsh; however, some inmates use bribes or intimidation to obtain more favorable treatment. Arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as prolonged pretrial detention, are fundamental problems. The civilian judiciary is inefficient, severely overburdened by a large case backlog, and undermined by intimidation and the prevailing climate of impunity. This situation remains at the core of the country's human rights problems. At year's end, the Superior Judicial Council (CSJ) reported that the judicial system was extremely overburdened; it received a total of 8.6 million suits in 1994-2000, of which 226,783 were criminal cases filed during 2000.

The authorities sometimes infringed on citizens' privacy rights. A number of journalists were killed, and journalists continued to work in an atmosphere of threats and intimidation, in some instances from local officials, but primarily from paramilitary groups and guerrillas. Journalists practice self-censorship to avoid reprisals. The paramilitaries and guerrillas targeted religious leaders. There were some restrictions on freedom of movement, generally because of security concerns. Violence and instability in rural areas displaced between 275,000 and 347,000 civilians from their homes in during the year. Almost one-fourth of these movements occurred in massive displacements. Exact numbers of displaced persons are difficult to obtain because some persons were displaced more than once, and many displaced persons do not register with the Government or other entities. However, while no consensus exists regarding the exact number of internally displaced persons (IDP's), observers agreed that there has been a significant increase in displacements over the past 3 years. The total number of internally displaced citizens during the last 6 years may exceed 1 million. There were reports that security force members, paramilitaries, and guerrillas killed, threatened, and harassed members of human rights groups. Violence and extensive societal discrimination against women, abuse of children, and child prostitution are serious problems. Extensive societal discrimination against indigenous people and minorities continued. Labor leaders and activists continued to be targets of high levels of violence. Child labor is a widespread problem. Trafficking in women and girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a problem. "Social cleansing" killings of street children, prostitutes, homosexuals, and others deemed socially undesirable by paramilitary groups, guerrillas, and vigilante groups continued to be serious problems.

NGO's attributed a large majority of political killings, social cleansing killings, and forced disappearances to paramilitary groups. According to military estimates, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella organization has a membership of between 8,000 and 11,000 combatants. The AUC exercised increasing influence during the year and fought to extend its presence through violence and intimidation into areas previously under guerrilla control while conducting selective killings of civilians whom it alleged collaborated with guerrillas. Throughout the country, paramilitary groups killed, tortured, and threatened civilians suspected of sympathizing with guerrillas in an orchestrated campaign to terrorize them into fleeing their homes, to deprive guerrillas of civilian support and allow paramilitary forces to challenge the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) for control of narcotics cultivations and strategically important territories. They also fought guerrillas for control of some lucrative coca-growing regions and engaged directly in narcotics production and trafficking. The AUC increasingly tried to depict itself as an autonomous organization with a political agenda, although in practice it remained a mercenary vigilante force, financed by criminal activities and sectors of society that are targeted by guerrillas. Although some paramilitary groups reflect rural residents' desire to organize solely for self-defense, most are vigilante organizations, and still others are actually the paid private armies of narcotics traffickers or large landowners. Popular support for these organizations grew as guerrilla violence increased in the face of a slowly evolving peace process.

The Government continued to insist that paramilitary groups, like guerrillas, were an illegal force and significantly increased efforts to apprehend paramilitary members. State security forces captured three times as many paramilitaries during the year as during the same period in 2000; however, the public security forces' record in dealing with paramilitary groups remained mixed, and in some locations elements of state security forces tolerated or even collaborated with paramilitary groups.

In April the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, presented a report that strongly criticized the rising number of massacres and disappearances, and the growth of paramilitary forces in the country. In her annual report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Ms. Robinson criticized the Government for failing to fight the paramilitaries. In addition, she expressed alarm at apparent links between paramilitary groups and members of the armed forces.

The FARC and the ELN regularly attacked civilian populations, committed massacres and summary executions, and killed medical and religious personnel. The FARC continued its practice of using gas canisters as mortars to destroy small towns, indiscriminately wounding government officials and civilians in the process. Guerrillas were responsible for the majority of cases of forcible recruitment of indigenous people and of hundreds of children. Guerrillas also were responsible for the majority of kidnapings. Guerrillas were responsible for forced disappearances of soldiers and police and continued a policy of killing, attacking, and threatening off-duty police and military personnel, their relatives, and citizens who cooperated with them. In many places, guerrillas collected "war taxes," forced members of the citizenry into their ranks, forced small farmers to grow illicit crops, and regulated travel, commerce, and other activities. Business owners have been kidnaped or threatened for refusing to comply with the FARC's "Law 002," announced in March 2000, which demanded that anyone with assets of $1 million pay taxes to the FARC or risk kidnaping. The FARC routinely committed abuses against citizens who resided in the demilitarized ("despeje") zone consisting of 5 southern municipalities, with a total population of approximately 120,000 persons. Numerous credible sources reported cases of murder, rape, kidnaping, extortion, robbery, threats, detention, and the forced recruitment of adults and children, as well as impediments to free speech and fair trial, and interference with religious practices.

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