Days before the 25th anniversary of the Palace of Justice siege, President Juan Manuel Santos called for the truth about the day’s events to be revealed, “however painful it may be,” according to a press release from the President’s Office.
Bogota‘s Palace of Justice, seat of Colombia’s Supreme Court, was taken over by M-19 guerrillas on November 6, 1985. Judges, staff, and members of the public were taken hostage. More than 100 people died during the military’s re-taking of the building, including 11 judges, and the army has been accused of torturing and murdering 11 civilians who disappeared after being rescued from the palace.
Santos said at a commemoration ceremony on Thursday “Our duty is, precisely, to recover the truth, however painful it may be, about what happened at the palace, and comfort victims, the families, who have every right to know it.”
Juan Francisco Lanao Anzola, whose mother was among the civilians that disappeared after the siege, told Colombia Reports that he welcomed Santos’ comments. “Santos said he will help us … I am more hopeful than under the presidency of Uribe.”
Former President Alvaro Uribe defended members of the military accused of the forced disappearances. Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega, who led the army in re-taking the palace from the guerrillas, was the first person convicted for the crime, more than 24 years after the events. Uribe expressed his support for Plazas Vega, and criticized the court’s decision in June to sentence him to 30 years in jail, saying “It hurts and it’s sad,” as the army commander had only been trying to protect the Colombian people.
Santos, who has sought to signal a move away from the Uribe administration’s widely-criticized approach to human rights since he took office in August, said Thursday that “I reaffirm, as president of Colombia … that we are determined to meet this call, now to travel – even if it hurts – the path of truth and of memory.”
The president said that the findings of the Truth Commission should be “considered seriously.” The commission, led by Constitutional Court President Nilson Pinilla, found in 2009 that the state used excessive force in its efforts to re-seize the palace, was responsible for the disappearances of civilians, and actively prevented the investigation of crimes committed that day.
Lanao, who campaigns for justice for the victims of the case, said he hoped that clashes between the government and the judiciary would end under Santos, and that the presidency would respect judicial decisions; “I am very excited about Santos’ attitude, especially as he has respected the sentence of Plazas Vega, but this is not just in his hands.”
The U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights’ representative in Colombia, Christian Salazar, speaking at the same ceremony as Santos, criticized the fact that so long after the events only one person has been convicted.
“Twenty-five years after the destruction of the Palace of Justice, impunity continues to surround the grave human rights violations committed at that time,” the U.N. official said in a statement.
Salazar praised the “historic” conviction of Plazas Vega, and noted the difficult conditions in which it was achieved, with “threats and intimidation against the judicial officials and defense attorneys,” and “sharp reactions” from the executive and from the military.
The judge responsible for the former colonel’s sentencing, Maria Stella Jara, left Colombia shortly after the ruling due to death threats.