The Supreme Court’s August 3, 2020 decision to order the pretrial house arrest of former president and senator Alvaro Uribe is a critical test for the rule of law in Colombia, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. The administration of President Iván Duque and other members of the Uribe-led governing party, the Democratic Center, should respect the decision and the court’s independence.
The Investigation Chamber of the Supreme Court is investigating whether Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010 and is a close ally of President Duque, bribed former paramilitary fighters to change their testimony about his alleged role in establishing paramilitary groups. Democratic Center leaders have made statements that appear designed to smear or intimidate the court and undermine the legitimacy of the decision, including by proposing an overhaul of the entire court system.
“Uribe’s house arrest is the most critical stress test for the rule of law in Colombia in the last decade,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The Duque administration and the ruling party need to respect the court’s decision and independence by ensuring that President Uribe defends himself through the legal process, not through threats of judicial reform and groundless accusations.”
The investigation for which the Supreme Court ordered Uribe’s house arrest began in February 2018. Uribe filed a criminal complaint in 2012 against Senator Iván Cepeda, contending that he had used “fraudulent” testimony to implicate Uribe and his brother Santiago in paramilitary atrocities in the 1990s. In 2018, the Supreme Court rejected the allegations against Cepeda and instead initiated an investigation into whether Uribe had tampered with witnesses by pressing them to say that Cepeda had bribed them to implicate the former president.
The Supreme Court is also conducting several other investigations against Uribe. In recent years, courts have requested investigations of his alleged role in a range of crimes, including the establishment of paramilitary groups, massacres when he was the governor of the Colombian state of Antioquia in the 1990s, and illegal wiretapping of judges, journalists, and human rights defenders when he was president.
Uribe’s administration was marked by a wide range of human rights abuses. From 2002 through 2008, in the cases that have come to be known as false positives, army personnel carried out systematic killings of innocent civilians to boost body counts in the country’s long-running armed conflict. In the mid-2000s, Uribe promoted impunity for abuses by paramilitary death squads and led a flawed paramilitary demobilization process that triggered the creation of new armed groups that still engage in serious abuses, including killings of human rights defenders.
His administration engaged in a broad pattern of verbal attacks and intimidation of journalists and Supreme Court justices investigating connections between Uribe allies and paramilitary groups. Dozens of Uribe allies have been convicted for conspiring with paramilitary groups.
Before the August 3 decision was made public, the Democratic Center and other Uribe allies issued statements that connected, without providing any evidence, a possible ruling against Uribe with an alleged conspiracy from the left aimed at harming Uribe’s reputation.
After the ruling, figures in the Democratic Center accused the court of engaging in “persecution” against Uribe. The party issued a news release defending Uribe and calling for a national constituent assembly to reform the constitution to “depoliticize the justice [system] and recover the trust in the institutions of the republic.” Senator Paloma Valencia, a leading voice in the party, said that the party proposed reforming “all the justice [system]” and transforming Colombia’s high-courts into a “single court.”
President Duque has in the past supported a Democratic Center judicial reform proposal, though his administration has not actively promoted it. On August 5, Duque said he supported reforming the judiciary, claiming that it was needed as a “structural issue,” beyond the Uribe case.
Coming from the party in power, the accusations against the Supreme Court amount to a direct attack on the legitimacy of the judiciary, and appear designed to intimidate the court as it conducts the highly sensitive investigations against Uribe, Human Rights Watch said.
Under international human rights standards, Colombia should safeguard the independence and impartiality of its judiciary. Judges should be free from constraints, pressure, threats, or interference, direct or indirect, and should have security of tenure to avoid fear of being removed from their posts for their decisions.
“The ruling party’s attacks on the court raise serious questions as to whether they think their boss is above the law,” Vivanco said.