Thursday, October 24, 2013

Colombia Court Finds Military Justice Reform Law Unconstitutional

A Colombian high court has ruled that a controversial military reform law backed by the government is unconstitutional, a development which could add unforeseen pressure on the peace talks with FARC rebels in Havana.

In what the AP calls “a stiff blow to the government,” the Constitutional Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that lawmakers’ recent approval of a bill which grants military courts increased jurisdiction over crimes committed by members of the armed forces violated the constitution. While the decision was not released, a statement read by Judge Jorge Ivan Palacio maintained that the court found “procedural defects” in the way the law was approved by Congress. El Tiempo reports that these included irregularities in the manner the bill passed from a lower house committee to the full floor, as well as the limited “quality of the debate” surrounding the bill, which was marked by pressure from the executive branch and ruling party.

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon called the ruling “a great blow to the morale of the armed forces.” El Espectador reports that he told reporters that the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos intends to send a new bill to Congress which will allow for many of the same revisions to the military justice system. Considering the months of debate that the previous bill underwent before its approval in the Senate in June, however, it is doubtful that the new measure will be passed before Santos’ current term ends in August 2014.

Semana magazine notes that the ruling is a victory for the five opposition congressmen who filed the complaint with the court, as well as human rights organizations in the country. While criticism from civil society groups forced the Senate to include provisions which guaranteed that certain human rights abuses would remain under the jurisdiction of civil courts, concerns lingered about the law’s potential to grant impunity to military abusers.

But the Constitutional Court’s decision has a downside. La Silla Vacia points out that the military justice reform law had a kind of placating effect on critics of Santos’ peace talks with the FARC, assuring members of the armed forces that they would not later have to stand trial for their decisions on the battlefield while guerrilla leaders were left off the hook. As the news site puts it:
“In effect, for many in the army the military justice reform was a sort of protective shield that would give them the legal guarantees they had been demanding for years to allow them to undertake what they consider to be the last offensives against the guerrillas. And Santos wanted to give this to them -- even as criticism rained down (especially of the initial draft) by victims’ organizations and international human rights organizations, among others --as one of the ‘goodies’  they were given when [the president] entered into dialogue with the FARC just as the military felt it was about to defeat them.”
Now that this “goodie” has been taken away from them, high ranking officers may be much more willing to speak out against the peace process, which will already face heightened criticism in the upcoming election season. Indeed, it appears this is already happening. Hours after the ruling, an army general wishing to remain anonymous described the military’s perception of the decision to La Silla Vacia:   “Imagine what could be happening right now in the head of the men at the front, putting their necks on the line. These things make one think, because one is committed to the country but needs a kind of protective shield.”

News Briefs
  • A judicial spokesman for Guatemala’s Constitutional Court told Spanish news agency EFE yesterday that a court ruling this week (which has not yet been made public) opens the door to amnesty to former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. While Prensa Libre reported that the decision recommended that the case against Rios Montt be dropped because of an amnesty proclaimed in 1986 by Guatemala's then-military regime, news site Plaza Publica clarifies that the Court only found that Judge Carol Patricia Flores should assess the extent of the 1986 amnesty decree, but did not endorse it. Mike Allison of Central American Politics lays out what all this means, noting that this does not bode well for the future of human rights trials in the country.
  • The Washington Post’s Juan Forero has a colorful look at the reactions to Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill from some of the activists and lawmakers that have been most vocal in supporting it. The piece also features some interesting commentary by Kevin A. Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, who warns that the Uruguayan law’s restriction on selling the drug to young people and foreigners will ensure that the continuation of the black market.
  • Haitian Attorney Andre Michel, an opposition figure who is spearheading a corruption case against President Michel Martelly, was briefly arrested yesterday before being freed from police custody by his supporters, the AP reports. The Martelly administration has condemned the release of Michel as a “flagrant violation of the principle of separation of powers,” although prosecutors have not said publicly why he was arrested in the first place.  According to the Miami Herald, the president spoke briefly with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden yesterday as protests broke out in the capital city against Michel’s arrest. In a subsequent statement, the White House said that Biden “welcomed President Martelly’s commitment to continue working to further strengthen Haiti’s democratic institutions, including by maintaining a strong and independent legislative branch.”
  • Today’s New York Times reports on the recent court ruling in the Dominican Republic, which denies citizenship to an estimated 200,000 of Dominicans of Haitian descent. The NYT notes that the ruling has focused attention on the deep-seated discrimination against Haitians in the neighboring country, and left the government scrambling over how to implement the decision. Yesterday, migration director Jose R. Taveras told reporters that the affected individuals would be given temporary residency permits while the country comes up with a more permanent plan.
  • In an interesting follow-up to the AP’s recent piece on the associated health problems that a reliance on herbicide chemicals has caused in Argentina, Reuters notes that the lucrativeness of soy cultivation and a government-fostered emphasis on monocropping threatens to deplete the fertile soils of its farm belt.
  • According to El Mostrador, the widows of two Chilean soldiers have filed a lawsuit against the head of the Chilean Communist Party, Guillermo Teillier, who recently admitted that his party was behind a failed attempt to assassinate General Augusto Pinochet in 1986. Five soldiers were killed in the incident, and eleven others were wounded.
  • The Economist has a helpful overview of Cuba’s dual currency system, which the government has announced it intends to eliminate. The magazine suggests that the reform will likely begin “cautiously, with selected state enterprises being allowed to trade using a variety of hypothetical exchange rates.” But while the government has reassured citizens that the move will not harm holders of either currency, it could lead to inflation of the Cuban peso, and will likely infuriate those who hold savings in the convertible peso, which will become swiftly devalued.    
  • On Wednesday, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the terms for the creation of an Indian reserve, which banned the expansion of land set aside for indigenous groups, did not apply to other reservations, O Globo reports. Reuters notes that the while the ruling was welcomed by indigenous rights activists it was criticized by the agricultural industry, which has clashed with native groups over its push to expand farming into the Amazon basin.

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