BOGOTA – A retired Colombian army officer was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the forced disappearance of 10 civilians who survived the November 1985 battle between security forces and leftist rebels occupying the Palace of Justice in Bogota.
Judge Maria Stella Jara pronounced sentence in the absence of Col. Alfonso Plazas, who remains in custody at the Central Military Hospital.
Plazas is said to be recuperating from psychological problems associated with the trial, but lawyers representing the victims’ families accuse him of malingering to avoid going to jail.
Jara found Plazas responsible for the forced disappearance of 10 civilians, including several cafeteria employees, who were among the hundreds of people caught inside the Palace of Justice when it was seized by members of the now-defunct M-19 guerrilla group.
The verdict upholds the findings of an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office that concluded 11 civilians originally listed as fatalities of the siege left the Palace of Justice alive after the security forces retook the building.
“It’s something that contributes to the clarification of truth and justice,” plaintiffs attorney Jorge Molano said of Jara’s decision, which could spur investigations of former President Belisario Betancur and the officers commanding the military and police at the time of the Palace of Justice incident.
Four other active-duty and retired military officers are already facing charges in the case.
On Nov. 6, 1985, around 40 M-19 fighters stormed the courthouse in central Bogota, taking Supreme Court justices, other judges, court officials and visitors hostage.
The Colombian army’s assault to retake the building, launched the following day, ended with the palace in flames and more than 100 people dead, including 10 high court justices and all of the guerrillas who took part in the initial attack.
A truth commission issued a report last year identifying late drug lord Pablo Escobar, the head of the since-dismantled Medellin cartel, as the financier and mastermind of the occupation of the Palace of Justice, though the M-19 denied any links to the kingpin.
Many in Colombia have long believed that the guerrillas set fire to the building to destroy evidence against Escobar, who feared being extradited to the United States.
In a communique issued after insurgents first seized the Supreme Court headquarters, M-19 said the aim of the action was to hold a “political trial” of President Betancur for his unwillingness to negotiate with what was then Colombia’s major rebel movement.
Colombia’s current president, conservative Alvaro Uribe, said he was saddened by the conviction of Plazas, describing the retired colonel as a soldier “who simply tried to do his duty.” EFE