The United States embassy in Colombia returned visas to top judges on Tuesday after a wave of criticism over the ambassador’s undue meddling in the country’s peace process.
The embassy’s move to revoke the visas of two Constitutional Court judges and one Supreme Court judge was part of broader US meddling with the country’s peace process, and in particular the possible extradition of alleged war criminals.
US revokes top judges’ visas amid escalating dispute over extradition of Colombia’s war crime suspects
US trying to compromise “impartiality of judges”
The presidents of the State Council, the Constitutional Court and the war crimes tribunal convened a press conference on Tuesday to express their concern about the actions of outgoing US ambassador Kevin Whitaker.
This is not a problem of visas for judges, it is an issue that is unsettling because of the context of pressures, and concerns over the impartiality of judges.
State Council president Lucy Bermudez, Constitutional Court president Gloria Ortiz and War Crimes Tribunal president Patricia Linares
Supreme Court President Alvaro Garcia also came out in criticism of the move, rejecting “the systematic attack on the integrity of judicial power.”
Garcia assured that those in the justice system would continue to act according to their principles, despite the fact that “there is quantity of elements which aim to politicize decisions, and that cannot happen in a state with the rule of law.”
Whitaker’s final assault
Whitaker had already been fiercely criticized by congress for his “aggressive” interpretation of diplomacy, but came under fire for real after he tried to compromise the courts’ integrity.
Following the tsunami of criticism over the weekend, the US embassy returned the visas of Constitutional Court magistrates Diana Fajardo and Antonio Lizarazo, but only after the two obtained a certificate from Congress’ Commission of Accusations that they were not under criminal investigation.
The visa of Eyder Patiño, President of the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court, has not been reinstated because he refused to get the certificate from the Congress’ Accusations Commission that can conduct criminal investigations against judges and is currently led by an ally of President Ivan Duque, House Representative Edward Rodriguez.
The committee’s president surprisingly announced on Tuesday that the commission would investigate Patiño and former Prosecutor General Luis Eduardo Montealegre for allegedly accepting bribes to stall criminal investigations against congressmen.
“They will not intimidate us.” the Supreme Court magistrate said.
No word from Duque
President Ivan Duque met with the three, and spoke to US ambassador Kevin Whitaker: it has been reported that he asked the ambassador to take into account the statements of the judges, though he did not request the return of visas.
Former president Cesar Gaviria called Whitaker’s actions an attack on the peace process and that the silence of the Colombian government constitutes complicity, calling Duque’s position on the matter “an attitude in which it is impossible to distinguish between fear and submission of Duque’s government, or the simple mutual complicity.”
Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo, who personally lobbied the US’ requests to limit the powers of the war crimes tribunal in Congress, explicitly denied on Tuesday that the government has been complicit in undue pressures on the judiciary,
The relationship between Colombia and the United States is one of cooperation, since we have common objectives, not one of fear, subordination, or complicity.
Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo
Among the judges whose visas were revoked are individuals who have been highly critical of US ambassador Kevin Whitaker, even refusing to attend official dinners on grounds of US meddling.
Whitaker came under fire last month after he allegedly threatened an end aid to Colombia unless lawmakers and the Constitutional Court removed limitations on the extradition of alleged war criminals.
The extradition of 18 paramilitary leaders between 2008 and 2011 blocked investigations into crimes against humanity and left more than 200,000 victims without justice, according to victim organizations and judicial experts.
Extradition forms part of the Colombian government strategy… to frustrate the rights of victims, and promote impunity for those most responsible for the crimes committed by paramilitary groups over the past 25 years: politicians at local, regional and national level, members of the Colombian Armed Forces, State officials, corporations and large landowners.
Colombia’s current peace process and recent amendments made to the law disallow the extradition of alleged war criminals unless the US provides evidence and only after those accused of drug trafficking have complied with their obligations to their victims.