Colombia’s Congress on Thursday approved a controversial legal amendment as part of the Justice Reform Act that has been widely rejected by the country’s high courts and which will improve the legal defense mechanisms for congressmen under criminal investigation.
According to the newly approved constitutional reform, congressmen can no longer be charged by the Prosecutor General’s Office and convicted by the Supreme Court in a single trial, and now obtain the right to appeal their sentence through an investigative and ruling unit of the Supreme Court. Additionally, congressmen can not be arrested until after being formally charged, contrary to normal citizens who are generally charged after their arrest.
“The reform that came out, while not being perfect, is good. It is a concerted reform, which resolves many important issues and incorporates other aspects of justice,” said Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra.
This measure was approved at a time when 138 former congressmen are on trial while 38 others have been sentenced for their ties to paramilitary groups. An additional number of former congressmen are being investigated for corruption or other crimes.
“This amendment only seeks immunity for parliamentarians who are being prosecuted,” said German Navas, member of the opposition party Polo Democratico. His party boycotted the vote and called for a referendum on the bill, claiming the legal change constitutes “a deadly kick for the constitution.”
The reform also eliminates the Superior Judicial Council, currently responsible for the administration of the country’s justice system and in charge of the suspension and dismissal of corrupt judges and attorneys.
The Congress’ Accusations Commission, currently investigating former President Alvaro Uribe for allegedly ordering the wiretapping of political opponents and the Supreme Court, will be replaced by a new commission that “serves to lead the impeachment process against those officials who enjoy constitutional immunity and are charged on criminal, disciplinary or political grounds.”
To fight congestion in Colombia’s clogged justice system, the bill allows lawyers and notaries to become temporary judges in local and regional courts.
An earlier draft of the bill limited the jurisdiction of civilian courts over crimes committed by members of the armed forces. Following pressure by human rights organizations this part of the reform was scrapped.
Critics of the reform have said that the Government and Congress are seeking impunity for crimes committed by the legislative and executive branch while making justice less accessible for the average Colombian who will have to pay a fee to have access to regional courts.
The reform will now have to pass a Congressional conciliation commission, to be signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and ultimately be tested on its constitutionality by the Constitutional Court.