Colombia's highest court ordered a civilian retrial for an army general implicated in a notorious 1997 massacre, rejecting a military conviction and sentence that human rights groups had called lenient.
The precedent-setting ruling announced Wednesday in the case of Gen. Jaime Uscategui could make it harder for soldiers to seek shelter in the South American country's military courts.
Progress in prosecuting soldiers charged with human rights abuses is a key condition for continued U.S. military aid to Colombia. Washington pledged $1.3-billion last year and is considering additional aid.
A military court convicted Uscategui in February of dereliction of duty for failing to send in troops to stop right-wing paramilitaries from carrying out the July 1997 massacre of 30 people in the southern town of Mapiripan.
President Andres Pastrana's government hailed the military verdict _ the first ever against a general in a human rights case _ as progress. But U.N. monitors and independent human rights groups criticized the 40-month prison sentence, saying it was ridiculously short given the severity of the crimes.
The right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, has killed thousands of suspected rebel sympathizers in its campaign against guerrillas. The Mapiripan massacre was one of the most brutal on record.
AUC gunmen allegedly flew by private plane into a military-controlled airport en route to the town in southern Guaviare state. During a five-day rampage, they reportedly slit victims' throats and dumped bodies in a river after accusing them of collaborating with guerrillas.
Town officials pleaded for help, but troops arrived only after the killers had left.
Uscategui vowed Wednesday to prove his innocence in a civilian court. He has been out of jail since July because of time served before his military sentencing. No new trial date was set.
The Constitutional Court ruling also paves the way for a new civilian trial for Hernan Orozco, a former colonel convicted along with Uscategui.