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Convicted Colombia General Freed

July 13, 2002

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ A former Colombian general convicted of failing to prevent the massacre of 22 people was freed after a deadline to file charges for a new trial passed.

Former Gen. Jaime Uscategui was convicted in a military court in February 2001 for dereliction of duty in connection with a 1997 massacre near the town of Mapiripan. He was sentenced to just over three years in prison. Prosecutors said Friday he had been released, but did not say when.

Uscategui was accused of ignoring warnings that a right-wing paramilitary group was preparing to ``cleanse″ the village of residents it suspected were supporting leftist rebels. Uscategui was commander of the Army’s VII Brigade, which had jurisdiction over Mapiripan at the time.

Human rights groups have long accused the Colombian military of tolerating, and even assisting the illegal paramilitaries in their fight against the rebels.

Last November, the Constitutional Court ruled he should have been tried in a civilian court, a decision hailed by human rights groups because the military sentence was widely viewed as lenient.

However, human rights groups were dismayed to learn Friday that prosecutors had waited too long to file the new charges and were forced to release Uscategui.

``There are disturbing number of these cases that are being cleared on legalisms, that do not address the meat of the accusation,″ said Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch.

Prosecutors can still charge Uscategui, according to a prosecutor familiar with the case.

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