- Associated Press - Thursday, July 17, 2014

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - A close ally of former President Alvaro Uribe was sentenced in absentia Thursday to more than 17 years in prison for diverting farm subsidies in one of the most prominent corruption cases tied to Uribe’s conservative administration.

Colombia’s Supreme Court handed down the sentence against former Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias, who was found guilty taking money intended for small-scale farmers and channeling it to some of the country’s richest landowners. Arias, who is believed to be in the United States, has denied any wrongdoing.

The case is just one of a number of investigations against former officials that Uribe says are being urged on by President Juan Manuel Santos. The claim underscores the bitter feuding between the two former allies that dominated last month’s presidential election and that is likely to continue when the still-powerful Uribe takes up a seat in the Senate on Sunday.

Among Uribe allies facing charges are the former president’s top legal adviser and a former peace commissioner in his 2002-10 U.S.-backed administration. The former head of Colombia’s disbanded secret intelligence agency is serving a 25-year sentence for ties to paramilitary groups and Santos’ government is also seeking the extradition of another Uribe spy chief, Maria del PIlar Hurtado, who fled to Panama after being charged with deploying illegal wiretaps on Supreme Court justices, journalists and human rights activists.

Uribe said in a statement that Arias is the victim of “political persecution” by the Santos administration. Legal experts have also questioned the stiff sentencing, pointing out that there was no evidence Arias benefited financially from the bogus land deals.

Arias has long been a divisive figure, earning the nickname “Uribito,” or “little Uribe,” for his loyalty to his political boss, who tried to promote him as a successor before throwing his support behind Santos. Arias already served two years in jail as a result of the investigation but he was paroled last year.

Colombia’s government said that Arias recently visited Colombia’s consulate in Miami, where they believe he is residing, and that officials would request his deportation if he failed to turn himself in.

Kevin Whitaker, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, declined to comment, telling reporters in Bogota that an extradition such request would be evaluated in accordance with U.S. law.


Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman

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