A Former President of Colombia Has His Oscar Wilde Moment

Aug 18, 2020

Senator Álvaro Uribe, a former president of Colombia, commenced a private prosecution against Senator Iván Cepeda for attempting to pervert the course of justice by paying witness to make false allegations against him. The judge dismissed the case, and found that it was Uribe who was doing the perverting. The matter is now before the Colombian Supreme Court, and Uribe has been placed under house arrest.

Álvaro Uribe was president of Colombia for two terms from 2002 until 2010, and later a Senator. He could be described as one of the first of the modern democratic authoritarians in the mould of Trump, Erdogan and Deterte. He is much more intelligent than Trump, and maybe not as bad as Deterte in terms of human rights abuses.

During his term as president, bonuses were paid to soldiers for the number of the FARC guerrillas they killed. The Army killed thousands of innocent people and dressed them up in FARC uniforms and then claimed the bonus. There is no evidence of Uribe’s direct involvement in these massacres, but he certainly let it be known on whose side he was on when he said about the victims, “Surely these boys were not picking coffee.” Millions of people were displaced from their homes, not only because of the actions of the FARC and the Right wing paramilitaries, but also the actions of the Army. Like most authoritarians, Uribe wanted to stay in power beyond his two terms by calling for a referendum to change the Constitution. He was very popular at the time for being successful in reducing the area of Colombia controlled by the FARC. The Colombian Constitutional Court ruled against him.

Uribe was a harsh critic of Juan Manuel Santos, his former defence minister, who succeeded him as president and who reached an agreement with the FARC guerrillas to end the 50 year civil war. Uribe preferred to wipe them out with the military, despite his lack of success in doing so during his two terms in government. Like Trump, Uribe thrived on creating conflict, and was accused of being closely tied to right wing paramilitary groups who were as bad as the FARC in terms of assassinations, kidnappings and drug running. He was also accused of wiretapping the phones of opposition members, critical journalists and of judges. He said he did not believe in “the rule of law”, but the “rule of opinion”, which meant that if he believed he had a majority of the population on his side, he could do what he liked.

It now seems that Uribe has had his Oscar Wilde moment. In 1895, Wilde commenced a private prosecution against the Marquis of Queensberry for criminal libel, alleging that the Marquis had called him a “somdomite” (sic). Wilde’s lover at the time was the Marquis’ son, Bosie. The libel case was dismissed, and the tables were turned when Wilde was charged with sodomy. He was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour.

In 2012 one of Uribe’s critics, Senator Iván Cepeda, accused him of supporting paramilitary groups. Uribe commenced a criminal action against him for perverting the course of justice. He accused Cepeda of paying witnesses to make up these allegations. The judge hearing the case, César Reyes, dismissed Uribe’s case against Cepeda, and instead found that Uribe had offered witnesses bribes to have them change their statements. It is on the basis of those findings that the Supreme Court has ordered Uribe to be under house arrest while an investigation is completed. He is the first former president of Colombia to be detained that way. The announcement caused jubilation with those who saw Uribe as an authoritarian dictator and protests from Uribe’s supporters who viewed him as the country’s saviour. Even the current president, Ivan Duque, a protégé of Uribe, protested the decision and claimed that Uribe was innocent.

Mauricio García Villegas, a legal academic, writing in Colombia’s El Espectador viewed these developments with concern because both attitudes indicate a contempt for the courts and the rule of law:

“In Colombia there is a long tradition of rebellion originating from the old colonial idea that unjust laws, or those simply seen as unjust, must be treated with contempt or even by resort to force. Innumerable conflicts, uprisings and wars have originated in the decisions of political leaders and their parties, to take up arms for that reason. It is true that this culture has weakened in recent decades, and calls for a just war and even armed uprisings against the central government have been discredited. But radical politicians continue to breed the habit of discrediting institutions when it suits them politically. They no longer call for insurrection, but they do call for disobedience.”

García calls this attitude the “one-eyed syndrome” and says that if the Court’s decision had gone the other way, the celebrations and indignation would have swapped sides. Although there is more respect for the courts in Australia, there were elements of that tribalism in reactions to the trials of an Australian divisive figure, George Pell. The same is true within our political system, where a proposition by one side of politics has to be bad for no other reason than that it has been made by the other side. One positive thing that can be said of the Covid-19 crisis is that this kind of tribalism has, for the most part, been set aside.

Colombia has a bad reputation internationally, mainly because of cocaine. The curious thing is that in all my visits to Colombia, there was no obvious evidence of its widespread use within the community, something that others have noticed. Most of the cocaine is exported to first world countries. If there was not such a demand in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, there wouldn’t be so much coca planted.

Colombia, despite all its problems with drug trafficking and violence, has been the most democratic country in the whole of Latin America. It has only ever had one dictator from 1953 to 1957. It a has had its own corruption woes, including within the judicial system, but the Uribe decision is a declaration of the Supreme Court’s independence and a sign that no one is above the law, no matter how powerful they may be. Whether Uribe is formally charged and found guilty of bribing these witnesses is another matter.

Kieran Tapsell is a retired civil lawyer, author and translator.

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