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Powerful Colombian ex-president to lose freedom during probe

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will not be allowed to remain at liberty while the Supreme Court investigates allegations of witness tampering against him in another blow to one of the nation’s most powerful political leaders.

Current President Iván Duque lamented in a short video statement Tuesday that his political mentor “will not be allowed to defend himself in freedom” as news of the former president’s expected detention rocked the county.

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

“This causes me profound sadness, for my wife, for my family,” Uribe said on Twitter. “And for Colombians who still believe I’ve done something good for the homeland.”

The news touched off a firestorm 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 him in a country where the powerful routinely escape punishment for wrongdoing.

“The court is showing that everyone – even the most powerful – is equal before the law,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch.

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

“It hurts, as a Colombian, that many who have wounded the country with barbarities defend themselves in freedom,” Duque said. “And that an exemplary public servant who has held the highest position of the state cannot.”

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. His political legacy remains highly contentious, with some Colombians crediting him for weakening leftist rebels and turning the tide in the country's long civil conflict, and others decrying his iron-fisted approach. Some of the nation’s most grave human rights abuses took place during his mandate.

Throughout his career, Uribe has been dogged by allegations of ties to drug cartels and paramilitaries. 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 probe stems from accusations made by Sen. Iván Cepeda, who contends 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 left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced or missing.

Uribe 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.

He has not yet been charged and denies the accusations.

“I think this is a decision that will help us consolidate democracy in Colombia,” Cepeda said Tuesday. “Today, something in Colombia has changed.”

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.

“This really does mean that nobody is untouchable,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. “And that people can try to hold the untouchable accountable without actually being killed.”

Though he left the presidency a decade ago, Uribe has continued to exert his influence over the nation’s politics and was instrumental in launching Duque, a young, relatively inexperienced congressman, into the presidency in 2018.

He led the “no” campaign in 2016 in which Colombians voted against a historic peace accord with leftist rebels that was later modified and adopted and has remained a critical voice toward the agreement in recent years as a senator.

The latest development in the years-long probe comes as Colombia inches toward its expected first peak during the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has now confirmed nearly 335,000 cases and 11,315 deaths. That makes the nation of 50 million ninth worldwide in the total number of coronavirus infections.

“The level of polarization in the country is just going to increase significantly,” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “Colombia during the pandemic has had a cause to unite around – and this is going to rip up apart.”