Colombia’s ex-Minister of Agriculture Andres Felipe Arias has been found guilty of embezzling state subsidies for poor farmers after a four-year court battle, Colombian media reported on Thursday.
Prosecutors successfully demonstrated that the former minister under ex-President Alvaro Uribe had funneled state subsidies from the Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS) program that were intended for poor farmers, but instead were given to wealthy and politically powerful families, a beauty queen, and even former paramilitaries.
Colombia’s Supreme Court determined that Arias “acted with total knowledge of the illegality of his conduct,” adding that he always had active participation and knowledge of the actions that surrounded the planning and execution of AIS while Minister of Agriculture, according to Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper.
Adding to the decision was a declaration by Arias’ lawyer, who confirmed that Arias was not in the country for the decision, and the choice of whether he will come back or not to face the consequences was “his, only his.”
The convicted former minister’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Arias’ lawyer added that he “respected” but did not “share” the ruling on Arias’ corruption scandal, one of the largest to rock former Uribe functionaries.
Arias’ lawyer also reiterated his defense, which was that Arias did not personally know any of the recipients of the subsidies, and that Arias was convicted because the people actually responsible “had their office on the same floor as Dr. Arias.”
Colombia’s Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez banned Arias from office for 16 years after the scandal broke, and he is likely to receive a prison sentence of 18 to 33 years with a minimum of five years, according to El Espectador.
The final sentence, with how much time Arias will serve in prison should he return to Colombia, will be released in the coming weeks.
Arias was sent to prison in July 2011 for the AIS scandal and released in June 2013. He will soon find himself again behind bars, if and when he returns to the country, for embezzlement and awarding contracts without fulfillment of requirements, according to national news magazine Semana.
Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office also investigated other functionaries in Arias’ Ministry of Agriculture, including Vice-Minister Juan Camilo Salazar Rueda, Secretary General Juan David Ortega Arroyave, and Commerce Director Camila Reyes del Toro.
Arias’ then-vice-minister, Juan Camilo Salazar, had already been sentenced to 10 years house arrest and a $45,000 fine after accepting to become a government witness and testify against his former boss.
Andres Felipe Arias, also known as “Uribito” because of his proximity in appearance, behavior, and beliefs to his mentor ex-President Alvaro Uribe, was one of the former head of state’s closest confidants.
The convicted minister was widely slated to be a candidate for the Conservative Party in the 2010 presidential elections before the scandal broke, but lost in the primaries to eventual candidate Noemi Sanin. Arias was imprisoned a year later.