BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian leader Iván Duque is facing criticism for personally opining on the judicial proceedings against his mentor, the powerful ex-President Álvaro Uribe, who has been placed under house arrest while being investigated for witness tampering.
In the two days since publication of the Supreme Court's decision — which has galvanized the nation and exposed simmering tensions over the country's peace process — Duque has repeatedly come out in Uribe's defense and stood by his right to do so.
But civil rights groups warn he is crossing a dangerous line and politicizing the judicial process in one of the most high-profile cases in decades.
“He is undermining the rule of law,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday. “He is weakening the democratic process in Colombia."
The Supreme Court is probing claims that Uribe was involved in bribing witnesses to withdraw or retract information linking him to a paramilitary group. Such groups were organized by landlords, sometimes with the complicity of the state, to fight guerrillas who espoused a leftist ideology while often resorting to kidnapping and extortion.
The violent conflict between the state, rebels and paramilitary groups left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced or missing.
Uribe has not been charged and denies the accusations against him.
The two-time president is one of the nation’s most enduring political voices but his legacy is divisive. Many Colombians hold him up as a near-savior who turned the tide on the conflict with rebels through a strong military offense that pushed them to the negotiating table. Others say he should be remembered as an iron-fisted leader who escaped accountability for the human rights abuses that took place during his administration.
Uribe has been dogged by allegations of ties to drug cartels and paramilitaries throughout his career, though he has never been charged and decries such accusations.
In an online meeting with international journalists Thursday, Duque said there is a “great imbalance” when former leftist rebels who signed a 2016 peace accord are allowed to remain free as they go before a tribunal or face criminal charges while Uribe, who is still under investigation, is ordered detained.
“I have been, am and will be a believer of his innocence,” Duque said.
Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, said that such strong personal statements call into question the judiciary’s decisions, and “I think that erodes the rule of law in the country."
However, he also noted that Duque's criticisms reflect the frustrations of many Colombians who are upset at what they see as a slow and lenient judicial process for ex-rebels. As part of the accord, former guerrillas who confess their crimes and cooperate with the peace process will avoid any jail time. In addition, 10 seats in congress have been guaranteed for ex-combatants.
Duque in particular has brought up the case of Seuxis Paucias Hernández, alias Jesús Santrich, who was freed from detention despite facing U.S. charges for drug trafficking while the courts examined his case and weighed his possible extradition. He has since fled and is now a fugitive.
Duque ran on a platform that was critical of the peace deal and his party has been keen to change certain aspects, including reforming the peace tribunal process.
“That a person who has served Colombia is not allowed to defend himself in freedom, but we have convicted criminals against humanity in congress... who are also guaranteed not to go to jail if they ‘tell the whole truth’ seems a great imbalance to me,” he said.
Duque is not the only one facing scrutiny for his quick backing of Uribe.
Members of the anti-socialist opposition in neighboring Venezuela have also been expressing “solidarity” with Uribe and recalling his support for their cause. Uribe's time in office concurred with that of the late President Hugo Chávez, who installed nation's current socialist system.
Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the Trump administration and over 50 other nations as Venezuela's rightful president, wrote on Twitter that he appreciates Uribe's “great support” for Venezuela and that “we express our solidarity.”
“Uribe is much more like Chávez than you think,” Vivanco wrote on Twitter. “They have styles and ideological positions that are different, but the government of Uribe was riddled with brutal human rights abuses and attacks against the rule of law. The democrats of Venezuela should not support him.”