By Sinikka Tarvainen (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES – Colombian President Ivan Duque on Wednesday criticized an unprecedented Supreme Court decision to place ex-president Alvaro Uribe under house arrest, defending the “honourability” of the former head of state in a case that has divided the nation.
A man who had “served Colombia” should be allowed to “defend himself in freedom” against accusations of witness tampering, Duque told broadcaster Caracol, sparking complaints that he was interfering with the independence of the judiciary.
Uribe, who is known as Duque’s mentor and is currently a senator, is Colombia’s first former head of state to be placed under house arrest.
The court said it wanted to prevent him from obstructing its investigation into claims that he bribed and pressured witnesses to silence allegations that he and his family had links to paramilitary groups which spread terror and played a prominent role in the country’s decades-long armed conflict.
The 68-year-old, who served as president from 2002 to 2010, has been one of Colombia’s most powerful and controversial politicians for two decades.
The case against him resulted from testimony by former paramilitary members, who were interviewed by leftist Senator Ivan Cepeda in prison, and who accused Uribe of helping to establish a paramilitary group in the mid-1990s.
Uribe sued Cepeda because of the allegations, but the case turned against him when the Supreme Court decided to investigate him instead. He is suspected of bribing or pressuring ex-paramilitary members to make it look like Cepeda had deliberately tried to tarnish his reputation.
Coronavirus restrictions have not prevented Uribe’s supporters and opponents from staging demonstrations in several cities, some of them in car caravans and the biggest bringing together hundreds of people.
Uribe’s party’s spokesman meanwhile said the former president had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but had no major symptoms or breathing difficulties.
Several entrepreneurs’ associations on Wednesday came out in the defence of Uribe, who was staying on his estate in the north of the country.
Supporters stress his successful crackdown on the FARC guerrillas, with whom his successor Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace deal, ending 52 years of warfare, in 2016.
But the military campaign against FARC was tarnished by the so-called false positives scandal, in which soldiers killed thousands of civilians and presented them as guerrillas to gain bonuses.
Uribe is facing dozens of judicial investigations for charges ranging from vote-buying to an espionage scandal involving the military.
His conservative Democratic Centre party accuses the Supreme Court of acting under political influence and is proposing a Constituent Assembly to reform the judiciary.
The court’s decision to place Uribe under house arrest has also raised hopes in the country where no modern democratically elected president has been jailed, despite accusations such as corruption and links with drug traffickers.
“[The Supreme Court decision] broke the impunity that existed for people with immunity. Not only for ex-president Uribe, but other presidents who have also committed crimes that might have earned them prison sentences,” Senator Gustavo Bolivar said.
A judge is due to decide on Thursday whether to jail Uribe’s former lawyer Diego Cadena and his associate Juan Jose Salazar. They are suspected of paying bribes or promising judicial advantages to two ex-paramilitary members to persuade them to testify in Uribe’s favour.
Uribe’s lawyer Jaime Granados on Wednesday maintained his client’s innocence, saying he “did not ask anyone to bribe any witness.”