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Rights Groups Say Both Sides in Colombia Conflict Use Torture - 2003-11-12

The Colombian Commission of Jurists and other human rights organizations says widespread and systematic torture is being committed by both government and rebel forces in Colombia.

The report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists finds that between July 1996 and June 2003, at least 1,776 people were victims of torture. It said 242 of them were tortured, but left alive. The rest were killed.

The commission says another 750 people were victims of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, most of them while detained in prison.

The report says torture is on the rise in Colombia, and is used by all the combatants, the military forces and the police, the paramilitary groups and the guerrilla groups.

The president of the World Organization Against Torture, Eric Sottas, says torture is unacceptable regardless of who is doing it. He says the government justifies torture as a necessary tool to fight against terrorism.

"For instance, we have a lot of reports also on the attitudes toward the human rights defender," he said. "The fact that they are accusing the human rights defender to be in fact linked with terrorism and also the fact that they are trying to extract confessions in order to fight against terrorism. This is their official justification, if we can say so."

The Colombian government told the U.N. Committee Against Torture the problem of torture in Colombia had to be considered within the context of the internal armed conflict. It said the guerrillas had intensified their terrorist activities, and accused them of kidnap and torture, as well as of abducting and recruiting minors.

That argument did not convince the committee experts who said, whatever the context, torture is an international crime.

Mr. Sottas says Colombia's paramilitary groups are responsible for most of the cases of torture in the country.

"When they are entering in a village for instance where they have suspicion that the guerrillas have received support from the different members of the community they kill in a very in-discriminatory manner, all the people," he said. "They are taking all the people out of the house and killing them, torturing and killing them. There are many, many cases."

The Colombian human rights groups say torture is spreading because the people committing these crimes are not punished and they are calling on the U.N. Committee Against Torture to penalize these practices.