An international human rights group strongly criticized Colombia's government Monday for pushing legislation that would let military judges decide whether soldiers should be tried for alleged rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch said going ahead with the measure could open Colombia to investigation by the International Criminal Court.
"Its passage would dramatically reverse recent progress Colombia has made in providing accountability for military abuses," the group's Americas director, Jose Miguel Vivanco, wrote in a letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
The judicial reform legislation, proposed by Santos' government, is before a committee in Congress, where the president's supporters hold a firm majority.
Vivanco argues in the letter that the bill could expose Colombia to an International Criminal Court investigation "by virtually guaranteeing impunity for human rights violations committed by the security forces."
Neither Santos nor his ministers commented immediately on the four-page letter. But one of the president's main spokesmen, lower house president Simon Gaviria, told reporters the government is not seeking to shield security forces from punishment for abuses.
"We think the legislation is positive, and in no way tramples human rights in Colombia," said Gaviria, a member of the Liberal Party, which is part of Santos' governing coalition.
Vivanco disagreed and criticized a provision that would allow military judges decide whether rights cases should be transferred to civilian courts
"In practice, Colombia's military justice system has long failed to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable," Vivanco wrote.
Colombia's 1991 Constitution enshrined a "military exemption" from prosecution by civilian courts for security force members.
But in 2006, the country's defense minister and chief prosecutor decided that all cases not strictly related to alleged violations of military service itself such as desertion would be decided in civilian courts, said Jose Gregorio Hernandez, a former Constitutional Court judge.
Activists said Santos' government had dealt the country a setback in August by proposing the judicial change that would re-establish military exemption rights. Colombia's current chief prosecutor, Viviane Morales, and the Supreme Court also have criticized the proposal.
Vivanco noted that "under the proposed reform, the military justice system would automatically assume jurisdiction over cases of torture and rape against civilians committed by security forces during operations."
It would also restore military jurisdiction over cases of extra-judicial executions of civilians by security force members, including so-called "false positives" cases in which troops dress up civilian victims as rebels and present them as combat deaths.
A scandal over just such executions broke in 2008 when Santos was defense minister.
The chief prosecutor's office has received complaints of 2,700 such killings, the vast majority during the 2002-10 presidency of Alvaro Uribe. To date, 368 soldiers and police officers have been convicted in those killings, and an additional 700 security force members face charges, according to the chief prosecutor's office.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.