Powerful Colombian ex-president to lose freedom during probe

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will not be allowed to remain at liberty while the Supreme Court investigates allegations of witness tampering against him, the nation’s current leader said in a video address Tuesday.

Iván Duque lamented in the short statement that his political mentor “will not be allowed to defend himself in freedom with the presumption of innocence” as news about one of the nation’s most powerful leaders rocked the country.

The Supreme Court has not yet made an official statement and Duque did not provide any details on what sort of detention Uribe would face, though analysts expect that he will likely be subject to house arrest because of the pandemic.

Uribe himself said on Twitter that he would be confined, though offered no details, other than to say that it brings “profound sadness” for his family and “for the Colombians who still believe that I’ve done something good for the homeland.”

The news touched off a firestorm of debate in Colombia, where Uribe remains a domineering voice in the nation’s highly divisive politics. Critics and civil rights groups praised the Supreme Court for continuing to pursue the accusations against Uribe in a country where the powerful routinely escape punishment for wrongdoing.

“I think this is a decision that helps us consolidate democracy in Colombia,” said Sen. Ivan Cepeda, who has spearheaded the investigation against Uribe.

Meanwhile, the ex-president’s supporters – including Duque, his mentee – decried the court for what they denounced as a political decision.

Uribe served as president from 2002 to 2010, overseeing the country at a time of continuing conflict with the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who later signed a historic peace accord with his successor.

The former chief of state is being probed for allegedly trying to influence and bribe members of a paramilitary group who had damaging information against him. He has denied all accusations and no official charges have been filed.

The case has divided the South American nations and set off demonstrations both in favor and against Uribe prior to the pandemic. Political analysts have been watching it as an important test of Colombia’s justice system, which throughout its history has struggled to hold prominent political and military leaders accountable.

Human Rights Watch Americas director José Miguel Vivanco praised the Supreme Court Tuesday.

“The court is showing that everyone – even the most powerful – is equal before the law,” he said. “The international community will support the court.”

Uribe has continued to exert influence over the nation’s politics, and was considered instrumental in launching Iván Duque, a young congressman, into the presidency in 2018. He led the “no” campaign in 2016 in which Colombians voted against a peace accord with left rebels that was later modified and adopted.

Allegations of ties to drug cartels and paramilitaries have dogged him for decades. The civil aviation agency he led in the early 1980s was accused of giving air licenses to drug traffickers. Declassified State Department cables from a decade earlier show U.S. officials were told the up-and-coming politician had ties to cartels.

The current accusation stem from a dispute with Cepeda, who claims he has firsthand witness accounts that Uribe was a founding member of a paramilitary group in his home province during the decades-long civil conflict involving government forces, leftist rebels and right-wing bands that convulsed the nation.

In 2012, Cepeda made allegations about Uribe’s paramilitary ties during a debate in Congress. Uribe later accused Cepeda of slander, but the Supreme Court dismissed the case, instead opening up an investigation against the ex-president for purportedly trying to bribe and sway witnesses who could testify against him.

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