Álvaro Uribe must go to trial for alleged bribery in the middle of the presidential campaign | International

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Álvaro Uribe was legally defeated this Wednesday in a long criminal battle. The former president expected a Bogotá judge to file an investigation against him that began in 2018, opened by the Supreme Court of Justice, for alleged bribery of witnesses and procedural fraud. But the opposite happened: the judge confirmed that this investigation must continue against the former president. This is the most important court case in the country today and this judge’s decision has legal and political consequences for the most powerful former president in the country.

The criminal case is a long legal labyrinth that will not end soon, as Uribe wanted. In 2018 and 2020, the Court had said that there was enough evidence to indicate that some witnesses received compensation from envoys of the former president to favor him in a court case. The former president then resigned from his seat in the Senate so as not to be investigated by the Supreme Court but by the Prosecutor’s Office. The subtext of that decision, it was understood then, is that the Prosecutor’s Office would be less harsh with the former president because the Prosecutor was close to Uribe president Iván Duque.

So it was. In March 2021, the Prosecutor’s Office dismissed several of the pieces of evidence that the Supreme Court had collected – testimonies in prisons or telephone recordings, for example – and requested that the investigation be archived. The victims, in particular left-wing senator Iván Cepeda, objected. Cepeda, according to the evidence, was the person that Uribe sought to attack with these alleged false witnesses.

So it was that the case ended, after several legal turns, in the hands of this judge who had to give the green light to continue with the investigation, or red light and file it. This Wednesday, the light was green.

The judge, Carmen Ortiz, harshly criticized almost all the arguments of the prosecutor Gabriel Jaimes to ask to file the investigation. If the Prosecutor’s Office said that there was no evidence to ensure that three imprisoned ex-paramilitaries –Giovanni Cadavid, Elso Mármol and Máximo Cuesta– had been bribed by Uribismo to speak against Cepeda, the judge said that, as the Supreme Court had seen, there had been suspicions of their motivations to accuse the leftist leader at the same time. So their testimonials cannot be excluded. Or if the Prosecutor’s Office said that former President Álvaro Uribe did not know about bribes that his lawyer, Diego Cadena, had made to some of the witnesses, the judge disagreed. There is evidence, Ortiz said, indicating that the lawyer was able to act on behalf of the former president in meetings with some witnesses. In addition, the judge criticized, there were some testimonies that the Prosecutor’s Office ignored and that the Supreme Court had considered relevant. After explaining all his arguments – in a hearing that lasted almost 10 hours – prosecutor Gabriel Jaimes said that he would not appeal the judge’s decision. The investigations, then, should continue.

Judge Ortiz’s decision does not make it possible to define whether or not Uribe is guilty of bribery or witness tampering. What it allows is to define that there is enough evidence for a trial against him to continue being investigated. Or in other words, that there is evidence to maintain doubt about Uribe’s innocence. The decision of this judge can now be appealed by Uribe’s lawyers before the Criminal Chamber of the Superior Court of Bogotá, which should define whether Judge Ortiz was wrong or not to continue the investigation. But it is unlikely that court will make a decision before the end of May, when the first round of the presidential elections will take place.

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Unlike the presidential elections of 2010, 2014 and 2018, for the elections this May, Álvaro Uribe has had a very discreet profile. He has not openly supported his candidate, Federico Gutiérrez, in part because Uribe himself knows that he can do more damage to that campaign if he shows his support publicly.

The popularity of this charismatic former right-wing president has plummeted in recent years, in part due to legal challenges against him. Uribe had been questioned several times by Iván Cepeda about being an ally of paramilitarism. But it was when Cepeda made the denunciations of him in Congress that the former president decided to denounce Cepeda criminally. But that court case came back to Uribe like a boomerang: after the Supreme Court looked at the case, the former president was preventively arrested in 2020 for allegedly looking for witnesses to dirty Cepeda. Since then, with the help of powerful law firms, he has managed to delay the investigation several times: either by giving up his seat in the Senate, filing tutelas before the Constitutional Court, and now asking to file this case, which came into the hands of Judge Ortiz. Uribe lost the battle in this court. The most important judicial case in Colombia, for now, continues on its way. The presidential elections, without Uribe in the public square, too.

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