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Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe arrives at the Supreme Court for questioning in a case about his alleged involvement in witness tampering in Bogotá, Colombia, Tuesday, October 8, 2019. © AP Photo/Ivan Valencia

Colombia is facing the most critical stress test for its rule of law in the last decade. The international community should pay attention.

On August 4, the country’s Supreme Court announced that it had ordered the pretrial house arrest of Senator Alvaro Uribe. Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010 and a mentor to current President Iván Duque, is no doubt the most powerful political figure in the country. The Investigation Chamber of the Supreme Court is examining whether he bribed former fighters to change their testimony about his alleged role in establishing paramilitary groups.

The Supreme Court showed considerable courage. For decades, no judicial authority in Colombia has dared to impose such constraints on Uribe despite multiple investigations.

Uribe’s allies followed the demagogue’s playbook. Instead of ensuring that Uribe defends himself through the legal process, they made statements designed to smear or intimidate the court and undermine the legitimacy of the decision. They voiced groundless accusations, denouncing an alleged conspiracy from the left aimed at harming Uribe’s reputation. 

Uribe’s party, the Democratic Center, threatened to overhaul Colombia’s entire court system. They proposed changing the constitution to transform Colombia’s high courts into a single court.

Uribe and his supporters have a long history of attacking the rule of law. His administration engaged in a broad pattern of verbal attacks and intimidation of journalists and Supreme Court justices. His intelligence service repeatedly engaged in illegal wiretapping of judges, journalists, and human rights defenders. Many Uribe supporters appear to have little concern for the rule of law if it gets in the way of protecting their boss.

The international community needs to be on high alert. Over the past 20 years the United States has invested millions of dollars to help strengthen Colombia’s justice institutions. Whatever position the White House takes, Democratic and Republican legislators who have supported this assistance should care. They need to clearly voice their concern about Uribe supporters’ attacks on the rule of law.

The European Union has also been a strong supporter of Colombia, most recently by backing the implementation of the 2016 peace accord with guerrilla groups. Key institutions established under the accord, including the peace tribunal created to try war crimes committed during the conflict, are likely to become casualties of Uribe’s cronies’ attacks if their intimidation is allowed to continue.

Governments in the region that are committed to the rule of law should also be concerned. Courts in Latin America rarely dare to prosecute the politically powerful. Uribe’s success in attacking the court would send the message that intimidation and abuse work, possibly chilling other brave judges in the region.

Without a strong judiciary, citizens have nowhere to turn for protection against abuses coming from private parties or governments, on the right or the left. The Colombian Supreme Court has signaled it is willing to apply the law, even against the most powerful. It deserves our support and protection.

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