Top Colombian judges threatened as they investigate lawmakers

Supreme Court justices face death threats as they investigate dozens of legislators’ links to paramilitary groups.

By , Correspondent

Three motorcycle police escorts zip through Bogotá's evening traffic jam, siren lights flashing. They stop cars at every intersection so the bulletproof SUV carrying one of Colombia's most threatened men can speed through. Inside, Supreme Court President Augusto Ibáñez sinks into the back seat, weary from a 13-hour day.

Last month he was informed of an assassination plot against him, the vice president of the court, and the president of the court's criminal chamber.

Colombian authorities have long been targeted with violence from right-wing paramilitary groups, drug cartels, and leftist rebels involved in the country's ­decades-long civil war. But Supreme Court justices here are facing a new flurry of threats as they proceed with a huge effort to investigate, prosecute, and convict dozens of lawmakers who allegedly colluded with paramilitaries in the "parapolitics" scandal.

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"Independently, each incident may not seem to mean much, but if you put it all into context, there is clearly a threat against the court," says Mr. Ibáñez. "It was when we started to get into parapolitics that we started seeing more security problems."

Faceless judges system to protect them

In Colombia, where many judges have been killed for their legal rulings, and where a system of faceless judges was set up in the 1990s to protect them, the threats cannot be taken lightly, says Maria McFarland, the top researcher on Colombia for Human Rights Watch in Washington. "So far nothing has happened, but you can't take that for granted," she says.

Most members of the court's criminal chamber, in charge of the parapolitics cases, have been the target of a direct threat or intimidating incident.

Ibáñez's home was burgled in March, but the only things stolen were two computers. Another magistrate reported having been approached during mass by young men in black track suits who greeted him ominously; when the magistrate returned home, the men were in front of his house. And the Supreme Court was one of the main targets of an illegal wiretapping and surveillance program uncovered earlier this year. It was run by the domestic intelligence agency known as DAS.

President Uribe's coalition members investigated

Under the Colombian Constitution, the Supreme Court's criminal chamber has jurisdiction to investigate, prosecute, and convict lawmakers for criminal acts committed as part of their legislative function. Since 2006, 99 lawmakers – mostly members of President Álvaro Uribe's ruling coalition – have been investigated, including the president's cousin Mario Uribe.

The investigations have shown that in many cases lawmakers won their seats in Congress thanks to backing from paramilitary warlords who sometimes threatened or killed their opponents. Those investigations have brought down dozens of lawmakers.

President Uribe last year filed criminal slander charges against then-Supreme Court president Cesar Julio Valencia for saying in a newspaper interview that the president had phoned about his cousin's case. It was then that threats against Mr. Valencia began.

Some of Uribe's supporters have suggested that the court has been overzealous in prosecuting the president's supporters but has done little to investigate lawmakers with alleged ties to leftist rebels. José Obdulio Gaviria, who resigned as one of Uribe's top advisers, wrote in a recent op-ed column that Ibáñez was the "true leader of the opposition" and that leftist FARC guerrillas considered him "the messiah."

"There's always going to be some crazy person out there who will read that and think it gives [him] a license to eliminate you," Ibáñez says. He has asked the police to tighten security for all magistrates. "[Attackers] will always look for the weak link," he says. "But if they think they can stop us, they're very mistaken."•

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