Colombia’s Constitutional Court urged Congress to introduce legislation that would allow all former lawmakers convicted by the Supreme Court since 1991 to appeal their cases.
The court order has led to fears it could collapse the Supreme Court’s new appeals chamber considering the large number of politicians that have been convicted over the past 27 years.
Colombia’s lack of a right to appeal
The Constitutional Court’s order followed up on the recommendation of the United Nations Human Rights Council which noted last year that politicians whose criminal cases go directly to the Supreme Court have at no point had right of appeal since the court came into existence in 1991.
The constitution guarantees citizens the right to due process, which includes an appeal, but this right did not extend to politicians convicted by the Supreme Court.
The human rights council had been asked for its opinion on the court system by former Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison for corruption and is now in a US jail awaiting extradition to his home country.
Following the UN’s conclusion that Arias’ due process had been violated, the Supreme Court installed an Appeals Chamber last year, but said it did not have the powers to decide on whether convicted politicians who had been convicted previously could file an appeal before this new chamber.
Retroactive justice for Colombia’s notoriously corrupt politicians
The Constitutional Court justices voted 8-1 in favor of enshrining the right to appeal in Colombian law and asked Congress to make sure this is applied retroactively.
Neither the Supreme Court nor the Constitutional court have legislative powers, which is why Congress was asked to come up with the constitutional amendment.
Curiously, the court order isn’t binding and Congress is well within its rights to ignore it as it has with many other court orders in the past.
However, if their recommendations do translate into legislation, this will bring Colombia’s justice system within the guidelines of the UN Human Rights Committee and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The only problem is that, because of the incessant corruption in Colombia, the retroactive granting of the constitutional right to appeal could almost immediately clog the appeals chamber less than a year before it opened its doors.
More than 250 top politicians were convicted by the Supreme Court between 1991 and mid-2018. All of them would have the right to appeal their original conviction.
For a country in the early stages of reconciliation after decades of war, opening up these old wounds could be a risky prospect.