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Court fines Colombia $232,000 for murder of indigenous leader

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CAUCA, Colombia - It's taken almost 20 years but the Colombian government has been ordered to pay $232,000 and make other amends to an indigenous community for the illegal seizure, torture and murder of German Escue Zapata, a leader of the Nasa community.

The Inter-American Human Rights Court, which is the judicial arm of the Organization of American States, ordered Colombia to pay the fine to the family of Escue Zapata and make other amends to the family and the larger indigenous community for its actions. The order was made public in early August.

According to court documents, an anti-guerilla unit staged a violent nighttime raid on Escue Zapata's home on Feb. 1, 1988. Military testimony indicated that the soldiers thought Escue Zapata was a guerilla and had hidden weapons in his home. Soldiers assaulted the leader and dragged him from his home in front of his mother and other family members. Shortly afterwards, shots were heard on the outskirts of the community and by the time they found him, Escue Zapata was dead. Before he was killed, soldiers must have beaten the victim severely, according to the report, which also noted that Escue Zapata's family and community were ignored by Colombian officials when they called for an investigation. The case against the anti-guerilla unit sat, unresolved, in the local district attorney's office for more than a decade before the court stepped in.

However, as of a few weeks ago, the family now has the full attention of the Colombian government. Camilo Ospina, Colombian ambassador to the OAS, read the official apology to Etelvina Zapata, Escue Zapata's mother, and Myriam Escue, his daughter at the court's facility in Bogota. The statement included the following:

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''Etelvina and Miriam [....] it is my duty, in the name of the Colombian state, to ask for your forgiveness for what has occurred, and to ask you this because it is apparent you have been involved in circumstances that, in the development of the country, have caused great harm to your family, to your life, to the development of your personality, and it has had important consequences in terms of the possibility to have optimal conditions for your life. Through me as an intermediary, Colombian society requests your forgiveness and expresses solidarity to you; perhaps we cannot repair all the damage that has been done to you but we will do everything within our power to repair the harm done to the affected people for things that should never have occurred by agents of the State who, irresponsibly and in clear violation of their authority, caused these problems ... The Colombian State profoundly laments the violation of the rights of Mr. German Escue Zapata ... and of you the family members ... in the hope that these actions will serve to mitigate the absence, and the pain caused by this tragic loss and to sincerely promise to fortify the measures that are being adopted to avoid the re-occurrence of such painful actions ...''

Along with the $232,000 fine, the government was ordered to make a full and public apology to the family in the presence of the community and ''high government officials'' in the language of the community; prosecute those responsible for the crimes; establish a fund in Escue Zapata's name for the benefit of the Jambolo community; fund a university scholarship, as soon as possible, for daughter Myriam Escue; and provide at no cost to the family specialized medical, psychiatric and psychological treatments adequate to the needs of Escue Zapata's parents, children, wife, and brothers and sisters.

Even though the government has indicated it will comply with the court's order, one local indigenous leader stated that her community is looking to the Inter-American Court with hope but not to the judicial system of Colombia.

''Colombia is not able to resolve human rights violations,'' said Aide Quilcue, main counselor for the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca. She asserted that local leaders will be discussing the ruling with officials from the United Nations, with whom they were meeting in the first week of August, and that the Inter-American Court's findings ''would open a venue for denouncing other crimes.''

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the court's investigative arm, had arranged in that same week for protective measures to be extended to other Colombian indigenous peoples such as the Kankuamos, Wiwas, Embera Katios and other peoples in northern Cauca, the same region in which Escue Zapata and the Nasa people reside.