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FARC peace talk law upheld, Colombia's president says he's ready to start talks with ELN

A Colombian court has declared constitutional a law that has made FARC peace talks possible. Meanwhile, the country’s president has said he is ready to start negotiations with Colombia’s number two rebel group, the ELN.

The Constitutional Court announced the decision on Wednesday evening, saying the law is a key factor in the peace process with Marxist FARC rebels.

Congress passed the so-called Legal Framework for Peace last year, which modified the constitution and established that rebels can receive reduced or suspended prison sentences if they lay down their weapons.

"The Constitutional Court considered that to reach stable and lasting peace, it is legitimate to adopt transitional justice measures like the mechanisms of selection and ranking," of crimes, said a statement read by the court's top judge, Jorge Ivan Palacio. However, he also cautioned that the ruling does not mean war crimes will go unpunished.

Human rights groups have criticized the amendment as inadequate and have said it could allow rebels who commit war crimes to escape justice.

Bogotahas been engaged in Cuba-brokered talks with the country's largest rebel group, FARC, since November. Ahead of the negotiations, FARC gave up kidnappings and freed its last police and military hostages in April.

The court's decision came on the same evening that President Juan Manuel Santos announced that Bogota was ready to start peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), FARC's smaller counterpart.

"The government is ready to start dialogue with the ELN as soon as possible," the office of the president said in a statement Wednesday. Santos had demanded the release of Gernot Wober, a 47-year-old mining executive, as a condition for beginning peace negotiations.

The ELN handed Wober over to the Red Cross on Tuesday, with the group's commander Nicolas Rodriguez, known as Gabino, calling his release a "humanitarian act" that would hopefully be seen as a "contribution for peace in Colombia."

Wobert was captured in northern Sur de Bolivar state on January 18 while visiting a gold-mining camp. He was taken along with two Peruvians and three Colombians employed by his company, all of whom were released a month later except for Wober.

The ELN, which opposes mining by foreign companies in Colombia, had demanded Wober's Braeval Mining Corp. halt exploration in the local Snow Mine. Last month the company announced it was pulling out of Colombia, and on Tuesday the ELN said it would free Wober.

The government has been in conflict with the leftist ELN, an organization with an estimated 3,000 fighters, for nearly five decades.

dr,hc/jm (AFP, Reuters)