Colombia’s former army commander refuses to commit to tell the truth before war crimes tribunal

General Mario Montoya (Image: JEP)

Victims were shocked on Thursday when General Mario Montoya, one of Colombia’s most controversial former army commanders, refused to vow to tell the truth before the country’s war crimes tribunal.

The country’s most decorated general’s refusal could prompt action by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has threatened to prosecute Montoya, among a slew of other military officials, if the Colombian justice system failed to do so.

Montoya claims innocence

Previously, Montoya agreed to submit to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in order to potentially evade a 40-year prison sentence over his suspected key role in the mass execution of civilians and other war crimes.

In exchange, he would have to tell the truth about a myriad of alleged war crimes, namely his involvement in the so-called “false positives” scandal in which the Colombian military slaughtered civilians to present them as guerrillas killed in combat. He would also have to compensate the alleged victims.

But when it came time to submit to the court after hours of victim testimony, Montoya did not sign the minutes that would commit him to telling the truth about the mass murders.

His lawyer, instead, appealed for reconsideration, saying Montoya would not take responsibility for crimes committed by his former subordinates.

“At the time, the general Montoya was commander of the Army and those events occurred in tactical units, with which General Montoya did not have the task of subordination, because only commanders of those divisions have that,” argued his lawyer, Andres Garzon.

The trial was suspended following the appeal.

Alleged victims devastated

Victim representatives lambasted the court and retired general, claiming they had been called to appear to face the man allegedly responsible for the deaths of their loved ones for nothing.

This has two connotations: first, the JEP is excessively ritualistic. The victims have said it, we want to hear truths. Second, the argument of the defense is absurd, not to recognize the victims of extrajudicial executions.

Victims’ defense attorney German Romero

This hearing was not the procedural moment to discuss responsibility within a line of command or the non-existence of facts and consequently of victims, which was what the lawyer of the accused did.

Juan Carlos Ospina (Colombian commission of jurists)

Montoya’s bloody career

The Colombian army began murdering civilians and presenting them as guerrillas in the 1990s, but as Montoya rose through the ranks of the military in the beginning of the 21th century, the number of “false positives” rose with him.

A 2018 study on the “false positives” scandal said that as many as 10,000 civilians could have been murdered by the military when former President Alvaro Uribe was commander in chief between 2002 and 2010. The prosecution put this number considerably lower, claiming 4,500 civilians were executed.

Years of prior investigations have tied Montoya to the the executions, one report by Human Rights Watch citing the testimony of a number of high-ranking military officials saying that Montoya knew about the killings “and did not take measures he could have taken to stop them.”

Is this where the International Criminal Court steps in?

If prosecution within the Colombia judicial system fails, Montoya may face international backlash. He was among 23 generals and six colonels the ICC said the Colombian justice system must prosecute either through normal or transitional justice.

If the country’s judicial system failed to do so, the ICC’s chief prosecutor threatened to indict them for war crimes in international court.

Prosecutor warns ICC will try military commanders if Colombia transitional justice fails

“It must be understood that the obligation to adopt all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent and punish a crime is not limited solely to the direct commanders,” said ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda last year.

When a high-level commander does not adopt this type of measures based on the information he has to his disposition, his criminal responsibility is also activated.”

If the JEP decides not to try Montoya, his case will be returned to the ordinary justice system, which in the past has failed to curb the almost absolute impunity rate enjoyed by alleged perpetrators of war crimes in Colombia.

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