Colombia releases suspect in attack on journalist Jineth Bedoya

Bogotá, June 4, 2015–The Colombian attorney general’s office announced Monday that charges have been dropped against Alejandro Cárdenas Orozco, a paramilitary fighter who confessed to taking part in the 2000 kidnapping of Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya, who was also raped in the attack, according to news reports. Cárdenas later retracted his confession, according to reports.

“We are troubled by the decision of Colombian authorities to release a suspect who confessed to participating in the horrific attack on journalist Jineth Bedoya 15 years ago,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ senior Americas program coordinator in New York. “We urge authorities to make good on public commitments to prioritize fighting impunity in crimes against the press.”

Bedoya, who at the time of the attack was working for El Espectador on a story about paramilitary death squads, said she was kidnapped on May 25, 2000, outside La Modelo prison in Bogotá. The assailants bound her hands and feet, taped her mouth, and blindfolded her. Then they drove her to the nearby city of Villavicencio, where she was beaten and raped, according to the attorney general’s office.

In exchange for a reduced sentence as part of a so-called “justice and peace” judicial program to encourage former paramilitary fighters to tell the truth about their crimes, Cárdenas, who was already in prison on other charges, said in 2011 that he was involved in the kidnapping, according to the attorney general’s office. He also asked Bedoya for forgiveness, according to the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP).

A report in El Tiempo on June 3 said Bedoya had identified Cárdenas as one of her attackers. In his 2011 confession, Cárdenas denied raping her, according to reports. He was charged with aggravated kidnapping, rape, and torture, according to a 2012 human rights report by the U.S. State Department.

But in August 2013, Cárdenas retracted his confession, a move that according to FLIP has become common among former paramilitaries involved in the justice and peace program. On Tuesday he was released from La Picota prison in Bogotá, news reports said.

Misael Rodríguez, director of the human rights unit at the attorney general’s office, told reporters the decision was based on Cárdenas’s retraction. Bogotá’s Caracol Radio reported that government investigators were unable to link Cárdenas to the scene of the crime. Rodríguez told W Radio he believed the prosecutor lacked information when he took his decision.

“My heart is hurting but my dignity is intact,” Bedoya tweeted after learning of the decision. Bedoya plans to appeal, according to FLIP, which is representing the journalist in the case. The inspector general’s office, which monitors all criminal cases, also plans to appeal the decision, Viviana Ordoñez, FLIP’s legal advisor, told CPJ.

Cárdenas’ release comes just one week after Bedoya, now a reporter for Bogotá’s El Tiempo newspaper, headed a gala event for victims of sexual assault that was held on the fifteenth anniversary of her attack. In her gala speech, Bedoya directly addressed Colombia’s Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre, saying: “If you have been unable to condemn the guilty in my case, which you claim is emblematic, what can other victims expect?”

Like the majority of attacks on Colombian reporters, there have been no convictions in the Bedoya case. Two other suspects in the case remain in prison, according to the attorney general’s office. The trial of one of them, Mario Jaimes Mejía, began June 3, according to FLIP.

At the time of Cárdenas’s confession, the attorney general’s office portrayed it as a major break in the investigation and had assured the Washington-based Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which is monitoring the case, that it would help lead to justice, FLIP said. In 2012, the government declared the attack on Bedoya a crime against humanity, meaning no statute of limitations will apply to the case.

The decision to release Cárdenas comes in the wake of a May 26 pledge by President Juan Manuel Santos to a visiting CPJ delegation that his administration would prioritize combating impunity in attacks against the press and would urge judicial authorities to speed up investigations.

Although security in Colombia has improved in recent years, impunity is entrenched and threats and violence against journalists continue, according to CPJ research. Problems such as overburdened prosecutors and mishandling of evidence have delayed criminal investigations for years.