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Dismissal of Colombian judge worries U.S. legislator

Times Staff Writer

The dismissal of a judge who handed down convictions and tough sentences in the slayings of several labor leaders came in for harsh criticism from an influential U.S. legislator as Congress considers a free trade agreement with Colombia.

The judge sat on a special tribunal that last year began looking into the killings of 2,554 labor leaders and organizers since 1986, a panel formed at the urging of the U.S. government, which provided millions of dollars to fund it.

During the tribunal’s first session, Judge Jose Nirio Sanchez found three members of the Colombian army guilty of murder in the 2004 killings of three labor leaders in Arauca province.

The soldiers had claimed that the victims were leftist guerrillas who died in a gun battle.

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The judge also convicted a man who hacked labor leader Luciano Romero Molina to death with a machete, and ordered an investigation into whether the multinational firm Nestle might have ordered the killing.

When Sanchez’s six-month term expired in January, it wasn’t renewed, but the terms of the other two judges on the tribunal were.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, wrote a letter to Colombian authorities expressing concern over Sanchez’s removal.

In a telephone interview, Miller said the dismissal was a case of “meddling.”

“The first serious controversial cases are tried, and this judge is removed,” Miller said. “That raises serious questions whether or not the system can be sustained.”

Congress is expected to vote in coming weeks on the free trade bill with Colombia. Since taking control of Congress in 2006, Democratic leaders have been vocal in criticizing the Colombian government’s performance in protecting human rights, labor unions and the environment, insisting that approval would depend on improvement in those areas.

Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, who speaks for his government on human rights issues, denied in a telephone interview that Sanchez had been dismissed because of his verdicts.

He said the executive branch had nothing to do with the decision.

“The decision was made by the judiciary and was something the executive and legislative branches should respect,” Santos said.

“He was not forced out. His term expired and was not renewed.”

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, urging her to consider reports of a rise in extrajudicial killings of civilians by Colombia’s military before certifying that the country is improving its human rights record.

Such certification is a prerequisite for the release of tens of millions of dollars in aid.

Democrats in Congress stipulated that $20 million in aid be used to strengthen the rule of law and judicial institutions, including the tribunal on which Sanchez served.

Colombia has long been viewed as the world’s most dangerous country for union leaders, who for the last 20 years have been targeted by landowners, businessmen and wealthy individuals.

According to Luciano Sanin Vasquez, general director of the National Labor Academy, a Medellin-based think tank, the number of labor leaders killed declined from a high of 275 in 1996 to 39 last year.

But there have been only 82 convictions in the 2,554 cases, he said.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com


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