Colombian Ex-President Faces Possible Detention Amid Fraud Inquiry

Colombian Ex-President Faces Possible Detention Amid Fraud Inquiry

Colombian Ex-President Faces Possible Detention Amid Fraud Inquiry

Colombian Ex-President Faces Possible Detention Amid Fraud Inquiry

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — President Iván Duque of Colombia attacked his own judicial system on Tuesday for pursuing his mentor, the former president Álvaro Uribe, who faces possible detention amid an investigation of fraud and bribery.

Mr. Duque’s statements came after Mr. Uribe lamented being “deprived of my freedom” on Twitter, fueling widespread speculation in Colombia that the former president was about to be detained by the Supreme Court. But by Tuesday evening, the court had not yet officially issued an order for his apprehension, adding to the confusion.

Mr. Uribe is a towering figure in Colombian politics whose apprehension would upend the political landscape in a country where powerful figures have rarely been called to answer for their actions in court despite years of inquiry.

Mr. Uribe would be the first Colombian president in modern history to be detained.

Even as other nations in Latin America have tackled corruption aggressively in recent years, sometimes prosecuting presidents, Colombia has not followed suit.

Soon after Mr. Uribe lamented his impending apprehension on Twitter, Mr. Duque denounced the fact that his mentor would not be allowed to remain free pending the resolution of his case — something that criminals and guerrillas have been allowed to do.

“It hurts, as a Colombian,” Mr. Duque said, that “an exemplary public servant, who has occupied the highest post in the state, is not allowed to defend himself in liberty, with the presumption of innocence.”

Widely viewed as the most powerful Colombian politician of the last two decades, Mr. Uribe has been subject to investigation for years, but this is the closest he has come to facing a panel of judges.

Mr. Uribe’s ability to avoid prosecution had led many Colombians to call him the “Teflon president.”

“Being deprived of my freedom causes me deep sadness,” Mr. Uribe wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, anticipating his detention, “for my wife, for my family and for the Colombians who still believe that I have done something good for the country.”

Mr. Uribe was president from 2002 to 2010, and continues to wield outsize power from his seat as senator. Mr. Duque was little known before Mr. Uribe backed him — and he won with a promise to restore Mr. Uribe’s legacy.

His standing in Colombia would make Mr. Uribe’s detention “really something significant for our country,” signaling a possible shift toward forcing previously untouchable politicians to answer for alleged crimes, said Francisco Bernate, a law professor at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, the capital.

Prosecutors have not yet brought formal charges against Mr. Uribe, but the Colombian justice system allows judges to detain him pending an indictment if they believe he is a flight risk or could tamper with evidence. He could be held for up to a year as the investigation moves along.

The case stems from an investigation that prosecuting judges in the Supreme Court started in 2018. The judges are examining whether Mr. Uribe tried to influence the testimony of an alleged paramilitary member, Juan Guillermo Monsalve, pushing Mr. Monsalve to retract statements in which he linked Mr. Uribe to the creation of paramilitary groups.

One of Mr. Uribe’s lawyers, Diego Cadena, is also under investigation in the case.

Mr. Uribe has denied connection to paramilitary groups, instead saying he has fought against them. He has also denied asking anyone to obstruct justice.

If found guilty, Mr. Uribe could face approximately six to eight years in prison, Mr. Bernate said, though it is likely he would spend the time under house arrest instead.

Detention threatens to further polarize Colombian politics, heightening conflict between Mr. Uribe’s allies and his opponents over the former president’s legacy.

The decision could also affect the current president, Mr. Duque, whose popularity sagged during his first year in office, until he got a bump for his handling of the pandemic. His supporters on the right may turn against him for not doing more to keep his mentor free, while critics on the left may use Mr. Uribe’s detention to taint Mr. Duque and bundle him with criminals.

Mr. Duque defended his mentor on Tuesday, saying the former president embodied “honorability.” Speaking on a national radio station, Mr. Duque said the idea that Mr. Uribe would be aligned with paramilitary groups was “absurd.”

The case is one of several investigations in the Supreme Court into Mr. Uribe’s conduct over the years.

The fraud and bribery investigation came about after Mr. Uribe accused a political opponent, Senator Iván Cepeda, of manipulating witnesses against him, prompting an investigation into Mr. Cepeda. That inquiry was closed in 2018, and the court decided instead to proceed with the investigation into Mr. Uribe.

In an interview, Mr. Cepeda said that there was “convincing, abundant” evidence against Mr. Uribe.

“Detention and a trial would be “an important shift toward strengthening democracy,” Mr. Cepeda said. “Colombia has been a country with monarchic tendencies in which certain political figures are untouchable. Well, here there cannot be anyone above the constitution, above the law and above justice.”

Jenny Carolina González contributed reporting from Bogotá.

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