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In what the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) are calling a major victory against impunity in Colombia, a former mayor has been sentenced to 28 years in jail for ordering the 2003 killing of a journalist who had denounced the mayor as corrupt. It is the first time the mastermind of a journalist's killing in Colombia has been convicted and jailed since 1992, says CPJ.

On 13 January in a court in the northern province of Santander, ex-mayor Julio César Ardila Torres was among three former public officials convicted of the April 2003 murder of José Emeterio Rivas, a host at Radio Calor Estereo in Barrancabermeja, Santander.

The attorney general's office said Rivas was killed in retaliation for publicly accusing Mayor Ardila of corruption and collaboration with members of the right-wing paramilitary group AUC.

A former colleague of Rivas told FLIP that the mayor's involvement in Rivas's death was well-known in the city. "What surprised us is that he was sentenced, since it was said that he would go free," he said.

"This judicial decision is a small but relevant achievement in the fight against impunity," says Carlos Cortés Castillo of FLIP, who points out that in Colombia, more than 100 journalists have been killed in the past 20 years, but Rivas's case is only the second in which masterminds have been convicted.

(The other case is that of humorist and journalist Jaime Garzón. His murder in 1999 was ordered by paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño, who was convicted for masterminding Garzón's death but who disappeared in 2004 and is believed to have been killed by his own people.)

IAPA president Enrique Santos Calderón stresses that "the Colombian judiciary's decision in this case sends a message that impunity, which has generated violence for many years, must be eradicated." According to CPJ, Colombia has the highest rate of unsolved murders per capita in the Americas.

FLIP says advances in the case were in part due to the Justice and Peace process, a law passed by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in 2005 that gives members of illegal armed groups substantial sentence reductions in exchange for fully confessing their crimes and demobilising.

Ardila and the two other officials had faced allegations in the case as early as September 2003 but the investigation was dropped the following year. It wasn't until 2007, when demobilised paramilitary fighter Pablo Emilio Quintero Dodino confessed to shooting Rivas at the request of local officials, that they were once again considered suspects. Quintero, formerly an AUC member, made the statement during a "Justice and Peace" hearing. He was convicted of engaging in paramilitary activities but not in the killing itself.

"Rivas's case has raised the expectations for truth and justice in crimes against journalists, although there is still a long way to go," says FLIP. In 2007, demobilised paramilitary fighters confessed their involvement in the 2002 assassination of Efraín Varela and the 2004 murder of Martín La Rotta Duarte. The masterminds have not been convicted in either of these cases, although the participation of public officials in these killings is also a well-known secret.

FLIP also says the convictions confirm the strong influence paramilitary forces had - and still have - over local administrations and journalists, as well as their implication in several journalists' deaths. In the rural provinces of Colombia, for example, journalists remain fearful of the presence of paramilitaries, despite government assurances that they have been demobilised.

According to FLIP, the defence is planning to appeal the decision, which will probably stretch the process on "for years."

Visit these links:
- FLIP op-ed on CPJ website:
- IAPA Impunity Project:
- CPJ:
(Photo of José Emeterio Rivas, courtesy of El Tiempo)

(28 January 2009)

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