A decade of baseless accusations by Colombian Senator Iván Cepeda found the right judges to produce a politically-motivated investigation with no material evidence. That is the story of the Uribe case.
When political groups around the world fail to impose their agendas through democratic means, or armed guerrillas and insurgents fail to advance through military attacks, they resort to “lawfare” to achieve their aims. It is a dangerous threat to the rule of law and democratic security, and it has arrived in Colombia with the arrest of former President Álvaro Uribe.
Lawfare is widely defined as the manipulation and abuse of Western judicial systems to achieve political or military aims. It starts as frivolous, unfounded accusations designed to silence, punish and deter opponents of groups that operate outside of the law, like terrorist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). When they join forces with political figures like Senator Iván Cepeda of the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), and find the right judge, the right court and the right set of circumstances behind the scenes, they strike at high profile targets for the maximum effect. This is what happened to Álvaro Uribe.
The Uribe case is a “leading case” – if this works against him, it will grow in strength as a weapon of choice against other democratically elected leaders.
The baseless accusation
Iván Cepeda made a name for himself in Colombian politics by attempting for years to falsely link Uribe to paramilitary groups, lifting his own international profile on accusations without one shred of evidence. In 2009, he entered electoral politics with the far-left PDA while visiting Colombian prisons under the false premise of verifying prison conditions as a human rights advocate. In reality, Cepeda was in those jails to induce ex-paramilitaries – who Uribe had jailed during his presidency- to produce false testimony against Uribe that he could use to advance his own political aims.
As a member of Congress starting in 2010, Cepeda used the prestige of his office to offer benefits to convicts if they gave him statements in return, accusing Uribe of criminal involvement with paramilitary groups. In 2011, Cepeda filed a complaint against Uribe with induced testimony from two convicts who were given cash or promises of reduced sentences and/or foreign asylum. Their stories became convoluted and inconsistent under questioning, and were never corroborated with material evidence. Cepeda used the induced testimony to gain more media attention and eventually won a Senate seat in 2014.
When Uribe was elected to the same body in 2016, Cepeda monopolized the first week of Senate sessions to re-hash the accusations without producing any material evidence, capitalizing on Uribe’s presence and further raising his profile.
From the start, Cepeda’s campaign against Uribe has been politically motivated. Cepeda’s known ties to FARC terrorist guerrilla Jesus Santrich and his public allegiance to Hugo Chavez expose the wider political network he forged and strengthened as the mouthpiece of baseless accusations. And his campaign of slander only intensified as Uribe opposed the 2016 peace deal, which gave amnesty to Cepeda’s FARC allies, and when Uribe’s party won a decisive victory against the far-left in the 2018 elections.
Finding the right judges at the right moment
The 2018 elections were a major setback for Cepeda’s FARC allies who were humiliated as they failed to elect a single member of Congress, because Colombian voters were outraged over the impunity offered in the peace deal. But the election campaign had come on the heels of the most dramatic corruption scandal ever to hit the Supreme Court and Cepeda was ready.
In the run-up to those elections, a massive bribery scheme was engulfing former Chief Justice José Leonidas Bustos where lighter criminal sentences were being sold for cash. The ex-chief anti-corruption prosecutor was extradited to the United States, and Bustos eventually fled to Canada to escape arrest.
On the eve of the elections, Bustos’ successor as chief justice, José Luis Barceló, suddenly – and secretly advanced with a bribery and witness tampering complaint by Cepeda against Uribe, relying again on the induced statements from prisoners who had repeatedly changed their stories. Then Barceló issued a falsified warrant in a separate case to tap Uribe’s phone, given there was no evidence to justify it. Nothing was captured in more than 20,000 illegally recorded conversations that proved anything in the case or any of Cepeda’s accusations.
After two years of systematically violating due process, no material evidence has yet been presented to incriminate Uribe. On August 4, 2020, without charging him with a crime, the Supreme Court ordered his arrest anyway. The false accusation met the right judges at the right time to make lawfare a reality in Colombia.
If it can happen to Álvaro Uribe, it can happen to any political leader in the Americas. The documented abuses in this case cannot be covered up. The ramifications of an unfair and unjust outcome to this case will be severe, not only for Colombian democracy but for regional security as a whole.
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