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Judiciary, legislators agree to work towards reforms to combat impunity

(IAPA/IFEX) - The following is a 3 September 2008 IAPA press release:

IAPA-ANDIARIOS Judicial Forum: Judiciary, legislators agree to work towards reforms to combat impunity

Bogota (September 3, 2008) - Colombia's judicial and legislative branches accepted recommendations to combat impunity by finding ways to reform public policy during yesterday's judicial forum held by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and the Association of Colombian Newspapers (ANDIARIOS) for magistrates, judges, public prosecutors, journalists and news media executives.

The meeting was called by the IAPA and ANDIARIOS to present the findings of a study titled "Injustice Rewarded" and to propose a list of recommendations for potential legal and administrative reforms to reduce impunity surrounding crimes against journalists.

The study, carried out by local lawyers Rodrigo Uprimny and Guillermo Puyana, was grounded in the irregularities during legal proceedings in the case of murdered journalist Orlando Sierra that resulted in a 19 year 6-month sentence handed down to Sierra's assassin, who was then released after only 5 years, when in fact such an aggravated crime calls for a 39-year term.

Uprimny and Puyana concluded that judicial weaknesses, errors in meting out punishment and subjective action by judges and public prosecutors abounded in the Sierra case and gave rise to "a reward system" that "leads to forms of relative impunity".

The recommendations presented to the forum were the main topic of panel discussions by Colombian Supreme Court Chief Justice Francisco Rucarte, Constitutional Court President Humberto Sierra Porto, National Congress President Hernán Andrade, Attorney General Edgardo Maya Vollazón and Inspector General Mario Iguarán.

From the onset, IAPA Vice President Enrique Santos, editor of the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo, set the tone for the debate by drawing attention to the judicial weakness that led to the release of Sierra's murderer, hired hit man Luis Fernando Soto Zapata, who died on July 4 this year in a clash with police in Cali. "What was he doing just 67 months later, back on the streets, once again committing crimes and killing?"

"It is a disturbing fact," Santos added, "one that forces us to ask ourselves how this can happen and what effects the current system of legal rewards and sentence reductions is having?"

Constitutional Court President Humberto Sierra declared that cases involving journalists should be taken under special consideration by the courts because "attacks on reporters have a profound impact on the fundamental right to freedom of expression." For his part Senator Andrade said that "the Colombian Congress will lean in favor of protecting the fundamental rights to inform and be informed, to express an opinion, to not be censored and to maintain journalists' professional confidentiality, and even more so when it means working together to strengthen the justice system to reduce the levels of impunity that are in violation of criminal law."

Inspector General Mario Iguarán added that "embarrassingly, we have to admit that there were mistakes made in the Orlando Sierra case and the masterminds behind the crime continue to go unpunished."

The study requested by the IAPA and ANDIARIOS of Uprimny, an attorney and director of the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society, and Puyana, a legal expert in legislation concerning news media, resulted in the following recommendations regarding Colombian criminal policy, to cite a few: (The full study and an executive summary can be found on the Web site http://www.impunidad.com )

That sentence reduction should not be handed out automatically; that inconsistent granting of favors that benefit criminals should be halted; that general sentence reductions should be eliminated; that minimum penalties be set and complied with no matter how many reductions may be granted; that more appropriate controls be put in place in deciding parole and sentence reduction for work or study; and that sentences reflect the guilty party's level of collaboration towards solving the case, including the identification of the masterminds.

The judicial forum began with "The Battle of Silence", an IAPA documentary on Sierra's murder on January 20, 2002 when he was managing editor of the Manizales newspaper La Patria and writer of the column "Punto de Encuentro" (Meeting Point), in which he often exposed corruption involving local politicians.

The forum was opened by ANDIARIOS Director Nora Sanín and by Diana Calderón, a reporter with the IAPA's Rapid Response Unit, who gave a detailed account of the status of legal proceedings in 57 cases of journalists murdered between 1993 and 2007 because of their profession.

At the close of the event, IAPA Press Freedom Director Ricardo Trotti, on behalf of the organization, called on the attorney general to follow the recommendation that he petition the Supreme Court to review the trial in the case of murdered journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal.

The judicial forum was a follow-up to the Hemispheric Conference on the Judiciary, The Press and Impunity held by the IAPA in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, July 18-20 last year. It forms part of the work of the IAPA's Impunity Committee which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

For further information on the Sierra case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/86857

For further information on the Carvajal case, see: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/96704

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