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Q&A: Death Threats for Supreme Court Justices in Colombia

Constanza Vieira interviews president of Colombia's Supreme Court JAIME ARRUBLA

BOGOTA, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - The Supreme Court’s opposition to the far-right paramilitary groups’ growing control over Colombian society from within the state itself has put it in “real and imminent danger,” in the words of former foreign minister Augusto Ramírez Ocampo.

Supreme Court president Jaime Arrubla. Credit: Courtesy of Supreme Court press office

Supreme Court president Jaime Arrubla. Credit: Courtesy of Supreme Court press office

The president of the Supreme Court, Jaime Arrubla, says the surveillance to which the magistrates were subjected at the hands of Colombia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) — which advises, and only receives instructions from, the president’s office — was “a state conspiracy” against the Court.

In this interview with IPS, Arrubla says the Court is facing “the biggest mafia” that has operated in Colombia.

The trouble began when the Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion which found that the Justice and Peace Law introduced by the government, that set the rules for the 2003-2006 disarmament of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary militias, was synonymous with impunity.

Under the law, members of the paramilitary forces who took part in the demobilisation process and gave a full confession of their crimes would receive a maximum sentence of eight years. A stricter version of the law was eventually approved by the Constitutional Court.

But the real confrontation between the Supreme Court and the right-wing government of Álvaro Uribe began when the Court started to investigate the ties between lawmakers and other politicians — nearly all of them allies of the president — and the paramilitary groups.

The Supreme Court has played a key role in uncovering the so-called “parapolitics” scandal, in which one-third of the members of Congress have either been arrested or investigated since 2006 for ties to the paramilitary militias led by drug lords and accused of crimes against humanity.

Since then, the Supreme Court magistrates have been the targets of a smear campaign, and they and their families have been under surveillance. The Financial Intelligence Unit (UIAF) even tried to find evidence that they had ever received money linked to the drug trade.

They have also received death threats — in some cases, by means of graffiti spray-painted on walls outside their homes, in others, by email or telephone.

Some have also learned about the threats from conversations intercepted by the attorney general’s office. “These magistrates are going to find out what it’s like to win first prize,” one hired killer said to another in a wiretapped conversation in March.

Q: Is the persecution still going on? A: Yes. This business of harassing the magistrates in our private lives, of interfering with and threatening us, intercepting our communications, started a while back and is still happening. We have to worry about our safety, and the safety of our family, our children. We have some security (bodyguards), but our children don’t.

Q: What questions do you associate the harassment with? A: The Supreme Court is currently involved in a range of cases. With respect to the parapolitics business, many members of Congress are implicated. Each time a ruling is handed down against one of them, the threats escalate.

There are also the Justice and Peace cases, in which the Supreme Court will be the court of appeal.

And then there are the extradition processes for these big criminals, who are wanted by other countries, especially the United States. (In May 2008, 14 former paramilitary chiefs were extradited from Colombia to the United States on drug trafficking charges.)

These cases involve nothing less than the biggest mafia that has operated here — a sort of alliance between drug trafficking, the paramilitaries and the political class that was susceptible to their pressure and allowed itself to be co-opted by them.

It is one of the biggest criminal bands, with a war apparatus, money, and the ability to apply pressure. We have no doubt that all of these threats are coming from there.

Q: According to the attorney general’s office, some of the orders for the persecution came from officials in the president’s office. A: We are not handling the investigation of the interception of our communications and our private lives. That is the job of the attorney general’s office.

The eighth prosecutor delegate to the Supreme Court has presented some conclusions in a hearing of charges, stating that mid-level DAS officials acted on instructions from their superior, the then-director (María del Pilar Hurtado), who in turn reported what happened to the Casa de Nariño (the presidential palace) and acted on instructions from officials in the president’s office.

That is not something we ourselves can confirm. If it is true, it’s terrifying. It would mean that a state intelligence agency — which, moreover, has been co-opted by the paramilitaries; one of its former directors (Jorge Noguera) is in prison — has been used against the Supreme Court of Justice.

This is appalling. I won’t add any more conjecture as to who is responsible, because it’s all very delicate, and I am not involved in the investigation. But if this is all true, it’s a dark page in the democratic history of this country.

Q: Which members of the Court are in the greatest danger? A: Yesid Ramírez and César Julio Valencia, both of whom are former presidents of the Court and who, coincidentally, have been the subjects of legal action by the government: Ramírez by the government peace commissioner, and Valencia by the president himself. We also find it quite telling that they were the focus of investigations by the DAS and the UIAF as well.

I would like it not to be true. But it is the investigators who will make the decisions they have to make.

Q: How will the Court respond, on the legal front? A: The Court has confidence in Colombia’s authorities and hopes there will be concrete results. It brought the complaint (about the surveillance) before the attorney general’s office and the police, and has confidence in them, but it will be closely watching to make sure that these investigations do not fall by the wayside.

Our responsibility is to ensure that the constitution and the laws are enforced and upheld. If we see an obstruction of justice, we will turn to the international bodies. But that hasn’t been necessary. We trust that the attorney general’s office is doing its work: the eighth prosecutor’s report was a demonstration of that.

Q: International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has taken an interest in the situation. Have you been in touch? A: Yes, on a permanent basis. He has been very generous to the Supreme Court, and we have a direct line to him.

If we see that this might not work here, we are prepared to immediately ask for intervention (by the ICC, which takes on cases where countries directly connected with the crimes are not able or willing to carry out prosecutions themselves). But since this is working for now, there has been no need to do so.

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