Colombia’s controversial justice reform bill has been finally killed by Congress following a painful process that has spread distrust between the legislative body and the government.
The reform, which aimed to streamline the country’s justice system, was passed by Congress two weeks ago only to be firmly rejected by President Juan Manuel Santos when sent to him for final approval. The House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously voted to throw out the bill Thursday.
Though originally proposed by the Santos administration, a series of controversial last-minute amendments were introduced during a closed-door Congressional committee that critics said would give impunity to public officials and the president said would create “institutional and judicial chaos.”
“We’ve overcome this crisis and we will not repeat the mistakes made with the Justice Reform. At the end of the day, the storm is over. The country is on track and we know where to go,” said Santos.
Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra, who oversaw the bill’s progress through Congress, offered his resignation to President Santos Friday. “It is very clear to me that as a government official I carry politicial responsibility. (…) I must take this political responsibility,” he said. He was present during the final Congressional committee session but says he was not in the room when the controversial modifications were agreed upon.
Some of the bill’s most contentious aspects included terminating the prosecutor general’s jurisdiction over cases involving public officials, which could have led to to the interruption of more than 1,500 ongoing cases. Officials would also have been allowed to continue in their positions after being investigated or even convicted of a crime. Finally, Santos criticized the reform for seeking to eliminate the Administrative Chamber of the Supreme Judiciary Council, which he felt would cause Colombia’s judicial branch to collapse.
Several officials have come forward in recent days to claim they voted to approve the bill due to government pressure. Tensions are high between Colombia’s congressional body and the government, according to Senate President Juan Manuel Corzo, who admitted that he wanted to avoid “a further breakdown in the relationship with the government.”
Amid raised tensions, President Santos tried to publically smooth relations, tweeting, “Thanks to the congressmen who voted for the collapse of the Justice Reform. I avoided a lot of damage to the country.”
“Responsibility cannot rest only with the Senate and the House [of Representatives] when the project was a government initiative, ” added Corzo.
Interior Minister Federico Renjifo pledged to restore national unity once congressional sessions resume July 20. “We will rebuild what is necessary for national unity and continue to operate as we should operate.”