BOGOTA (Reuters) - A Colombian high court ruled on Wednesday that a law that made peace talks possible with Marxist FARC rebels is constitutional, rejecting a legal challenge that could have jeopardized efforts to end five decades of war.
The so-called Legal Framework for Peace, approved in Congress last year, modified the constitution and laid the foundation for punishment of war crimes, reparations for victims and eventual peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"The Constitutional Court considered that to reach stable and lasting peace, it is legitimate to adopt transitional justice measures like the mechanisms of selection and ranking," of crimes, said a statement read by the court's top judge, Jorge Ivan Palacio.
The court's decision came on the same evening President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his government was ready to prepare for peace negotiations with the FARC's smaller counterpart, the National Liberation Army, or ELN.
That decision had been expected after the ELN met Santos' pre-condition for talks, the freeing on Tuesday of a Canadian hostage the group had held for seven months.
Though a pre-requisite for talks with the rebel movements, the reform has been harshly criticized by the opposition and human rights groups as an inadequate law that offers a "backdoor amnesty" for horrific war crimes and one that may force victims to turn to the international courts for redress.
Gustavo Gallon, a lawyer with the Colombian Commission of Jurists, had filed the legal challenge to three phrases in the text of the law that he said would allow lawmakers to select which cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes could be investigated and punished, leading to impunity for many.
Supporters of the reform had argued that any change to its wording could weaken the scope of the entire law, throwing into doubt negotiations in Cuba between the rebels and the government.
The law became the foundation that drew the FARC, Latin America's biggest rebel group, into peace talks late last year. The bloody conflict has killed at least 200,000 people.
Only members of the FARC and the ELN stand to benefit from the law. It excludes criminals involved with drug cartels or former paramilitary groups.
The FARC first took up arms in 1964 as a Marxist group struggling against inequality, but later turned to kidnapping and drug-trafficking to finance itself. Colombia is a leading producer of cocaine.
President Santos argues that it is unrealistic to attempt to investigate and punish all violations and war crimes during the conflict and called the court's ruling an important step towards ending decades of violence.
"For this process to be successful depends in large part on the justice system and that we find the middle point between justice and peace that enables us to put a definitive end to this conflict which has been bleeding us for 50 years," he said.
Opposition leaders, however, argue that the law would allow rebels responsible for atrocious war crimes to benefit from soft prison sentences or walk away scot-free. Former President Alvaro Uribe says it violates certain international treaties because it would effectively pardon crimes against humanity.
Even as the 8,000-strong FARC has been weakened by a decade-long U.S.-backed offensive, a rash of attacks against oil installations as well as recent heavy military combat losses against the rebel group, have proven it is still a force to be reckoned with.
The two sides reached partial agreement in Havana on rural development, the first issue on a five-point agenda, and are now negotiating terms of how the rebels will be incorporated into the political system. They also will seek agreement on the drug trade, reparation of victims and an end to the conflict.
Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Peter Murphy and David Brunnstrom