BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia’s Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will no longer have jurisdiction over the investigation into accusations that powerful former President Álvaro Uribe tried to strong arm ex-paramilitaries into testifying in his favor in a case that has rocked the nation.
The court said the justices do not believe the allegations are connected to Uribe’s position as a senator, so they unanimously decided to turn the case over to the chief prosecutor’s office.
The case is considered a key test for the judicial system in Colombia, which has struggled to combat high levels of impunity and in recent weeks has been besieged by Uribe supporters who contend the Supreme Court is biased.
The high court had astonished Colombians in August when it ordered Uribe under house arrest while advancing the investigation into accusations that he pressured witnesses into retracting statements indicating he had ties to paramilitaries.
Since then, Uribe’s political allies, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, have denounced the court’s decision and called on him to be freed. Uribe’s son has hired a Washington-based lobbyist organization, DCI Group, through a Medellin-based company at $40,000 a month to promote the ex-president’s cause.
By law, the Supreme Court is responsible for handling any legal probes involving elected officials. Uribe resigned his Senate seat two weeks after being ordered under house arrest. His lawyer argued the Supreme Court therefore lost jurisdiction.
The court's members issued a statement Tuesday saying they had determined Uribe's case involved “an investigation without relation to his position as a congressman.”
The chief prosecutor’s office should, at least in theory, be able to resume the investigation where the Supreme Court left off, but there might be additional issues to resolve first.
Iván Cepeda, the opposition lawmaker whose accusations instigated the legal ordeal, is considering asking the chief prosecutor to be recused from the case.
“It’s evident that the chief prosecutor has a close relationship with (current) President (Ivan) Duque, the national government and ex-President Uribe,” Cepeda told Colombia’s BLU Radio.
Uribe’s defense team, meanwhile, could possibly try to have the investigation restarted from the beginning, instead of carrying on by using testimony and information already gathered.
The witness tampering case is one of several investigations involving Uribe currently before the Supreme Court. The politician, who is considered one of the most important political figures in Colombia’s recent history, had also been asked to testify before the high court in connection with three massacres and the death of a rights activist during Colombia's five-decade civil conflict.
The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction of those cases will also likely be reviewed.
Uribe has long been dogged by accusations of ties to paramilitaries, militias that were formed by landowners during Colombia’s conflict to extinguish guerrilla threats but which also engaged in brutal violence against civilians.
A previously classified memo obtained the National Security Archive shows that one top Pentagon deputy believed Uribe “almost certainly” had dealings with paramilitaries.
The 1,554-page Supreme Court decision on Uribe’s house arrest included transcripts from numerous intercepted calls showing that the ex-president was directly involved in efforts by his lawyer to obtain testimony from jailed militants in his favor.
Uribe has vehemently denied the accusations and his defense has contended in court that he was only marginally aware of his lawyer’s activities.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said all eyes will now be on the prosecutor’s office to ensure a fair and complete investigation.
“Prosecutors must ensure an independent, impartial and credible analysis of Uribe’s case,” he said. “Uribe clearly thinks that the Attorney General’s Office will be soft on him. It’s up to prosecutors to prove him wrong.”