"This is a historic moment"
By Julia Symmes Cobb
BOGOTA, March 15 (Reuters) - Colombia's transitional justice tribunal - designed to try former leftist rebels and government soldiers for crimes during the country's five-decade war - will begin collecting evidence and preparing its first hearings, officials said on Thursday.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal, founded under a 2016 peace deal between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, will try cases considered most representative of the war's violence.
"This is a historic moment that marks the starting point of what it means for a country like this to heal wounds through the recognition of truth and responsibility," JEP president Mirtha Patricia Linares told journalists.
More than 220,000 people were killed during the Andean country's long internal conflict between the government, leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers. One Marxist guerrilla group remains active with myriad crime gangs.
Leaders of the FARC, now a political party, will be required to testify to the tribunals, recounting their part in killings, sexual violence, kidnappings, bombings and other crimes. If convicted, they may be ordered to complete five-to-eight-year sentences of restorative work like rebuilding roads or schools.
Ex-fighters who lie or do not tell the whole truth but are later convicted could receive harsher sentences of between five and 20 years in regular prisons. Many Colombians believe the possible sentences are too lenient.
Some 7,000 FARC fighters demobilized early last year and more than 4,600 of them have already submitted testimony for the JEP to process.
Members of the armed forces who were involved in human rights violations will also appear before the JEP, which is set to operate for at least 15 years. Nearly 1,800 have submitted testimony.
Some FARC leaders expected to be called before the court are preparing to serve in 10 congressional seats reserved for the group through 2026, under terms of the accord.
Victims' organizations are encouraged to present case evidence to the JEP, officials said. The court will also take over war-related cases from the country's regular judicial authorities.
The conflict's complexity and length mean the tribunal will rule only on a small portion of crimes.
"Transitional justice, by definition, is modest, because we already know we can't do everything," tribunal administrator Nestor Raul Correa said. "If I were to give a random figure - of 200,000 crimes that have happened in these fifty years, we'll investigate 1,000."
A start date for the first trial has not yet been set. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb Editing by Suzannah Gonzales)
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