BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — In a stiff blow to the government, Colombia's highest court for constitutional questions on Wednesday struck down an expansion of the military justice system that human rights activists had said would lead to greater impunity for war criminals.
In a 5-4 decision not subject to appeal, the Constitutional Court nullified a constitutional amendment and pursuant statute that would have placed under the jurisdiction of an expanded military justice system all but seven types of violations of international humanitarian law involving armed forces personnel.
Currently, all human rights cases are supposed to be tried in civil court.
Magistrate Jorge Ivan Palacio read a statement saying the court found "procedural defects" in the change's journey through Congress, accepting the arguments of opposition lawmakers and a top human rights lawyer. The decision was not released.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon called the ruling "a blow to the morale of the military forces that without doubt will affect Colombians' security." He said the government would consider submitting a revised military court overhaul, but gave no details.
President Juan Manuel Santos was seen as having pushed the change through Congress to win the backing of military leaders for peace talks that began last year with the country's main rebel group in Cuba.
Santos repeatedly insisted the legal change would not lead to impunity in war crimes, but such arguments did not persuade members of the U.S. Congress, which withheld at least $10 million in military aid in objection to the measure.
Human Rights Watch and other critics said the statute had too many loopholes and could have allowed some members of the military to evade justice for extrajudicial killings and other crimes.
A spate of cases arising from hundreds of alleged extrajudicial killings by soldiers in 2002-2008 continues to work its way through Colombia's civil courts, and rights activists said they feared the military justice overhaul would make it more difficult to pursue those responsible, particularly senior officers.
In those so-called "false positive" killings, innocent civilians were killed for no apparent reason other than to boost rebel body counts, U.N. investigators found.
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia in Bogota and Frank Bajak in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.