- Associated Press - Friday, July 13, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - Dressed in blazers and collared shirts, leaders of Colombia’s once largest guerrilla army made their first appearance at a new special peace tribunal Friday to respond to allegations of war crimes during five decades of bloody conflict.

“I’m here at your disposition,” said Rodrigo Londono, looking more like a professor in a pair of thick-rimmed glasses than a former rebel leader. “Watching with profound emotion as the dream we weaved together in Havana comes to crystallization.”

The procedural hearing for “Case No. 001” lasted three hours and was attended by just three of the 31 leaders of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who were summoned. Most instead were represented by lawyers.

One, Seuxis Hernandez, appeared on a live television feed from inside the detention center where he is being held on charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.

“This is an illegal detention,” Hernandez said during a rant decrying that he had not been permitted to attend in person. The audio from the transmission was eventually cut off, after which Hernandez waved a peace sign to the audience.

The tribunal was set up under terms of the peace accord signed by the government and leaders of the FARC.

Its first case concerns kidnappings that FARC guerrillas committed between 1993 and 2012, a time when the rebel army was expanding. Kidnappings were a common practice used to extort money from families and to show control of the civilian population.

Victims included high-profile politicians like Ingrid Betancourt, who was abducted while campaigning for president, but the identities of many are still unknown.

Some kidnapping victims were rescued or escaped while others were killed.

Magistrates have reports from the chief prosecutor’s office and independent organizations providing information on several hundred cases. One of their key tasks will be determining exactly how many people were kidnapped by guerrillas and what happened to them, though the number is likely too large for each case to be fully accounted for.

Magistrate Julieta Lemaitre said the tribunal’s first case represents “a fundamental step in the effort to put an end to the armed conflict.”

The prosecutor’s report has not been released publicly, but Colombian station BLU Radio obtained a copy in which investigators allege there were more than 8,000 kidnapping victims. Nearly 75 percent were men and about a quarter were peasants.

The report, which has not been seen by The Associated Press, also alleges the rebels obtained millions of dollars through kidnappings.

Luz Marina Monzon, who is overseeing the unit in charge of finding the disappeared, said officials continue to receive requests for help finding people who went missing.

She said the truth and recognition stage of the peace process that has now begun will “help resolve what happened to these people.”

Because of the immense scope of the conflict, the special peace tribunal is likely to delve only into a small fraction of the war’s brutal toll. The struggle between leftist rebels, paramilitaries and the state resulted in at least 250,000 dead, 60,000 missing and millions displaced.

Under the peace deal, ex-rebels are required to fully confess any war crimes and make reparations to victims. The special peace tribunal is one of the most controversial parts of the accord, largely because it will allow most former combatants who cooperate to escape any time behind bars and enter politics.

President-elect Ivan Duque vowed throughout this campaign to change parts of the accord, including creating tougher punishments for those accused of crimes against humanity. Duque could make some changes by decree or in congress, though he would likely face considerable resistance.

Londono, best known as Timochenko, sat in a front row seat alongside two other ex-guerrilla leaders. One brought a bouquet of roses, the emblem of the group’s new political party.

After leaving the court, Londono read a lengthy statement in which he complained about the presence of journalists at the proceeding but also vowed that all those summoned would fully comply with the process.

Acknowledging that irreparable harm was done to many Colombian families, he said: “We ask them for forgiveness. We will do whatever it takes so that they can know the truth.”

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