ICC closes preliminary war crimes examination into Colombia after 17 years

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court said on Thursday it would close a 17-year preliminary examination into Colombia for war crimes and crimes against humanity in recognition of efforts to combat impunity and guarantee justice for victims.

The preliminary examination, opened in 2004, was the longest in the court's history. The ICC can only officially step in if a state is unwilling or unable to prosecute war crimes in its jurisdiction.

Colombia and the court have been in permanent contact to ensure crimes like murders, disappearances, torture, kidnappings and forced displacements do not take place with impunity, officials said.

"I am delighted to say that Colombia has stepped up to its international obligations, to its Rome Statute obligations and consistent with the principle of complementarity, I am delighted to say I can step out of the preliminary examination phase," ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said at an event with President Ivan Duque.

Despite a 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, Colombia's nearly six-decade armed conflict has not ended.

The FARC deal created the Special Jurisdiction for Peace(JEP) transitional justice tribunal, which is trying ex-rebels and military officials for crimes related to the conflict.

Khan expressed his support for the JEP - criticized by some as being too lenient - and said a new cooperation agreement between the government and the ICC would ensure it could function without political interference.

Duque has come under fire for not sufficiently backing the JEP, which can impose lighter sentences on former fighters if they give full testimonies about their crimes.

Khan warned the ICC can always reopen the examination if Colombia fails in its obligations, while Duque said the agreement would allow Colombia to share future progress.

The agreement could put the JEP at risk, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco said.

"The ICC prosecutor's decision to close the Colombia preliminary examination ... is premature, misinformed, and detrimental to justice," he said on Twitter. "The country's transitional justice system may now be an easier target."

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta, additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague, Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Editing by Nick Macfie)