Colombia peace tribunal: Ex-rebel shouldn't be extradited

CHRISTINE ARMARIO
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FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2016 file photo, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, rebel commander and peace negotiator Seuxis Hernandez, alias Jesus Santrich, flashes a victory hand signal at the end of a press conference in Bogota, Colombia. The Special Peace Tribunal investigating crimes during the country’s long civil conflict announced Wednesday, May 15, 2019, that Hernandez, should not be extradited to the United States on a drug warrant. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The special tribunal investigating war crimes during Colombia's decades-long civil conflict ruled Wednesday that a top rebel peace negotiator should not be extradited to the United States on a drug warrant, a decision certain to fuel renewed debate over a critical component of the fragile peace accord.

The nation's chief prosecutor, Nestor Martinez, immediately resigned in protest, calling the Special Peace Jurisdiction's ruling a slap in the face for Colombia's democracy and the many victims of the armed conflict.

"The evidence is conclusive, indisputable," he said in a terse statement. "This destroys international judicial cooperation."

Seuxis Hernandez, best known by his alias Jesus Santrich, is a blind rebel ideologue who was jailed in April 2018 on accusations that he conspired to move several tons of cocaine with a wholesale value of $15 million into the U.S. He has been behind bars in Colombia as the tribunal weighed the question of his extradition.

At issue is whether the alleged crimes took place before or after the signing of the December 2016 peace accord between the government and the country's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. Rebels who lay down their weapons and confess to crimes are spared jail time and extradition but aren't protected for crimes committed after the signing.

An Interpol notice for Santrich's arrest claims he met with cocaine buyers at his residence on Nov. 2, 2017. During that meeting and subsequent negotiations, he and his co-conspirators allegedly discussed plans for a 10-ton shipment to the U.S., boasting they had access to cocaine laboratories and U.S.-registered planes to move the cargo, the notice says.

Santrich has repeatedly professed his innocence, saying he was the victim of a scheme to put him behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.

In an interview from the La Picota jail with local radio station Caracol, he said the tribunal's ruling marked the final blow to a "dirty setup" orchestrated by the U.S. Department of State and Colombia's chief prosecutor.

"I hope the government and other institutions respect this ruling," Santrich said.

Supporters of the accord praised the decision as an important show of the tribunal's independence. But the ruling will be another test for Colombia's delicate peace process. Skeptics contend the accord offers terms that are far too generous to ex-rebels after a half-century of conflict between leftist guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups that left at least 250,000 dead, 60,000 missing and millions displaced.

President Ivan Duque, who has been pushing to change key aspects of the special peace tribunal, condemned the ruling and said his government would support a move by the attorney general's office to appeal the decision.

"I have been, am and will continue to be ready to sign the extradition for alias Jesus Santrich and any other drug trafficker," Duque said in a late-night address. "Genuine truth, genuine justice, genuine reparation and genuine guarantee of non-repetition to the victims will remain at risk by tolerating criminal recidivism."

In explaining the decision, the tribunal's magistrates said that the U.S. State Department did not provide the evidence requested and that intercepted audios held up as proof did not clearly indicate Santrich was culpable.

"It's not possible to evaluate the conduct attributed to Hernandez, nor to determine the precise date committed," the judges said.

The tribunal ruled that trying Santrich in Colombia instead of the U.S. is the best way to "consolidate a peace that is stable and durable." The judges also stressed that their finding did not constitute a determination of innocence or guilt.

The FARC long funded its operations by leveling a "war tax" on cocaine moving through its territory. Fifty members of its leadership structure were indicted in 2006 in the U.S. on charges of running the world's largest drug cartel. But the guerrillas always denied direct involvement in the business itself.

While the special tribunal is proceeding with cases against former rebels, military officers and other suspects of war crimes, critics have tried to weaken it. None of Duque's proposed changes, however, have passed congress.

Supporters of the peace deal insist the court should be kept intact or else risk losing the trust of the thousands of rebels who have surrendered arms. Two prominent FARC rebels who had initially participated in the peace process have since failed to appear at their required court dates, contending the government is steadily stripping away the agreement settled on during four years of talks in Havana.

On the same day that the tribunal ruled on Santrich, it issued another order reaffirming a recent decision demanding the capture of former FARC leader Hernán Velásquez, better known by his alias "El Paisa."

Critics like former President Alvaro Uribe quickly blasted the decision on Santrich as another indication that the tribunal is biased toward former rebels.

"At the pace we're going, Colombia will end up asking for forgiveness for FARC narco-terrorists for not having surrendered power to them sooner," Uribe quipped on Twitter.

Others in support of the accord, like Jorge Rojas, a mayoral candidate backed by the party of Gustavo Petro, who lost to Duque in the presidential election, said the decision shows the tribunal is functioning despite enormous political pressure.

"The JEP works," he said, referring to the tribunal's acronym. "Peace is possible."

Colombia's chief prosecutor released a handful of audio files that included conversations with Santrich's alleged assistant, but it's unclear what additional evidence was gathered that definitively points to his guilt.

"There was no good choice here," Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, said of the Santrich ruling.

"If you're going to extradite an ex-guerrilla to the United States, dealing a tremendous blow to the peace process, then the case had better be a slam dunk," he added. "This was not a slam dunk."