Protected status withdrawn from key Palace of Justice siege witness

The Colombian government has announced legal measures that could force a key witness in the Palace of Justice 1985 siege case to testify.

Interior Minister German Vargas Lleras announced Thursday he would withdraw the protected status granted to a key witness in the case agaist five soldiers on trial for their role in the siege, according to newspaper El Espectador.

It means the witness, Edgar Villimizar, who had successfully argued his life would be in danger if he took to the stand, could now be subpoenaed to appear.

More than 100 people died on November 6 1985 during an army offensive to retake Bogota‘s Palace of Justice from the M-19 guerrilla group, who had stormed the building and taken 300 people hostage.

All 35 guerrillas and 11 Supreme Court Judges were among those who died during the military operation. The army has been accused of torturing and murdering a further 11 civilians who disappeared after being rescued.

Edgar Villimizar, a key witness in the case against retired army Colonol Edilberto Sanchez Rubiano, who took part in the army offensive, yesterday refused to give evidence for the fourth time because of fears for his safety.

This led to a request from Jorge Molano, lawyer for the 11 victims still classified as “missing”, for an investigation into the conduct of the Minister of the Interior and the Inspector General’s Office, on the grounds that they were not cooperating and were obstructing justice.

Minister of the Interior German Vargas Lleras responded today with a statement in which he vehemently denied the accusations, and announced that the Ministry will apply a “suspension” of the protective measures applied to Villimizar by the Ministry’s Directorate of Human Rights, which have allowed him to withhold his testimony.

He reiterated however that the primary function of the Ministry was to protect the lives of witnesses, adding that it did not have the power to subpoena witnesses, or force them to testify.

In 2005 the Supreme Court created a Truth Commission to investigate the seige. Such investigations contributed to the 2010 conviction of Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega, who led the army in re-taking the palace from the guerrillas, and remains the only person to be convicted more than 25 years after the events.

The trial of Plazas Vega was beset by similar difficulties, including intimidation and death threats against Maria Stella Jara, the judge responsible for the former colonel’s sentencing, who had to flee Colombia following the trial and remains in exile.

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