Colombia’s Supreme Court formalized its investigation into allegations of fraud and witness tampering against Alvaro Uribe Velez on Oct. 8, hours after the controversial former president testified in a landmark legal proceeding.
The hearing was the first time a former president had appeared before the Supreme Court, and the case is one that could see the country’s most powerful and arguably most popular modern politician face jail time.
Political tensions rose as both sides voiced concerns of political influence tainting the case, sparking minor scuffles as police clashed with protesters marching both for and against Uribe.
Uribe is accused of bribing and threatening ex-paramilitaries to make false accusations against Ivan Cepeda, a senator who was investigating links between the former president’s family and paramilitary groups.
When Cepeda went public in 2012 with videos of jailed ex-paramilitaries testifying that Uribe and his brother Santiago Uribe had established one of Colombia’s most deadly paramilitary factions in 1995, Uribe accused Cepeda of manipulating witnesses.
But the Supreme Court eventually dismissed the charges in February 2018, leveling the same charges against Uribe himself.
Dozens of witnesses, including politicians, police officers, and paramilitaries have testified, and the court is believed to hold thousands of intercepted calls in which Uribe and his lawyers are implicated in alleged witness tampering.
The case is one of 14 currently brought before the Supreme Court against Uribe, alongside claims of complicity in massacres and targeted killings. Two witnesses have been subject to assassination attempts and one key witness was murdered in April 2018, raising suspicions of a brutal coverup.
Uribe, now a senator, denies all the allegations, and says he will collaborate in full with the inquiry.
“I never thought my love for Colombia would create these judicial difficulties,” he told local press ahead of the hearing.
Support and Criticism
A year and a half after the case was opened, Uribe was summoned to testify at Bogotá’s Palace of Justice as both his supporters and detractors called foul play.
While allegations have long been held against Uribe, this is the first time they have reached the country’s highest court.
Uribe’s critics hope Colombia’s biggest political figure will soon be convicted, signaling a juncture for the polarized country.
“If this man goes to jail, Colombia is going to have a huge party,” said Miriam Ordoñez, a 37-year-old psychologist who weathered downpours in Bogotá with her daughter to jeer the senator. “People thought he was the country’s savior but now they are waking up, and judges are risking their lives to finally bring justice.”
After hours of questioning behind closed doors, the court formalized proceedings, with official charges expected to be brought against him soon. It isn’t clear when a decision will be made or whether the defendant will remain free for the remainder of the probe.
While the high-profile nature of the case in a politically polarized Colombia sparked fears it could be influenced by political interests or even trigger violence, Colombia’s institutions have held up so far, said Yann Basset, electoral politics analyst at Bogotá’s Rosario University.
“Yesterday, we saw institutions functioning as they should, and Uribe himself recognized the process. … All of this speaks well of the institutional stability of the country and does not confirm the alarmist messages,” Basset said.