- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2020

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - Powerful former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced Tuesday that he is resigning his Senate seat, saying his position as a lawmaker has been impeded by a Supreme Court probe into possible witness tampering in a case that has polarized the country.

Uribe posted his resignation letter on Twitter, denouncing the court’s decision to place him under house arrest while the probe advances as a violation of his rights that “eliminates any expectation of being able to return to the Senate.”

“I dream that Colombia can recover from so many difficulties without putting at risk freedom,” he wrote in the page-long missive.

Uribe has not been charged and denies the accusations against him.

The case has divided Colombians and revealed continuing tensions over the country’s historic 2016 peace deal ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict. Ardent supporters view his house arrest as an injustice, noting that most ex-guerrillas are allowed free while testifying about war crimes as part of the accord. His critics and analysts contend the house arrest order shows even the most powerful can be held accountable.

The resignation is a potential delaying tactic as it will force the Supreme Court to weigh whether it still has jurisdiction over the case, said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. The high court is handling the investigation because of Uribe’s status as a lawmaker.

Guzmán said he expects the court to retain jurisdiction because the alleged witness tampering happened during Uribe’s time in the Senate. But, he added, “This measure adds additional layers to the case, so it’s not something the court can rule on in the near future.”

The influential former president is being investigated for any participation in an alleged scheme to sway jailed ex-paramilitaries into testifying in his favor. Since early in his career, Uribe has been accused of harboring ties with paramilitaries, which were organized by landowners to fight leftist guerrillas engaged in kidnapping, murder and extortion.

Over 1,500 pages of court documents obtained by The Associated Press show Uribe was closely involved in working with a lawyer in looking for ex-paramilitaries who could refute his alleged involvement in their activities and instead state they had been compelled to submit false testimony against him by an opposition lawmaker.

Uribe’s lawyers in court have stated that he had little to no involvement in the effort to find such witnesses.

In his Senate resignation letter, Uribe said eight of his due process rights have been violated, including the inability of his counsel to cross-examine witnesses. He also repeated his party’s call for judicial reform, in particular how magistrates are selected.

“They should arrive at the high court at a mature age that has dissolved vanity and reinforced adherence to the truth,” he wrote.

News of the Supreme Court’s house arrest order - the first of an ex-president in recent history - jolted Colombia two weeks ago. Supporters prohibited from staging outdoor protests on foot because of pandemic restrictions instead organized long chains of cars that snaked through major cities blaring their horns. In Congress, allies placed over a dozen cardboard images showing Uribe with his presidential sash in empty seats.

Even U.S. Vice President Mike Pence questioned the court’s decision.

“We join all freedom loving voices around the world in calling on Colombian officials to let this Hero, who is a recipient of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, defend himself as a free man,” Pence wrote on Twitter.

Such remarks have irked civil liberty groups who worry the case is morphing into a trial of Uribe’s political record rather than the alleged crimes. Impunity reigns in Colombia on a wide range of crimes and those in positions of power frequently escape any punishment, so the case is thus viewed as an important test of Colombia’s judicial independence.

Uribe is hailed by his supporters for his iron-fisted approach against Marxist rebels. A strong military campaign weakened the guerrillas, who eventually decided to negotiate peace. But Uribe also presided over the country as some of the worst human rights abuses took place, including a scandal in which soldiers killed thousands of poor Colombians and passed them off as rebels in exchange for bonuses.

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