Supreme Court Slams Uribe as Bribery Scandal Grows

News from Colombia | on: Saturday, 5 July 2008

Colombia's Supreme Court last week slammed Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe and called on him to "respect and obey the decisions" of the courts. The Supreme Court's intervention came in the wake of Uribe's recent call for a referendum to decide if new presidential elections should be held and is the latest chapter in a bribery scandal that has rocked Colombia.

The so-called 'Yidis-politica' scandal centres on accusations made by ex-Congresswoman Yidis Medina. She alleges that regime members, including the former Interior and Justice Minister, Sabas Pretelt, (now the Colombian ambassador to Italy) bribed lawmakers, including her, in order to win a Congressional vote in favour of modifying the constitution in 2004. The vote, which was narrowly won by Uribe's supporters, changed the constitution by scrapping the one-term limit for Colombian presidents and allowed Uribe to run again in 2006.

Medina, a Conservative party member who helped form Uribe's coalition, says regime officials bribed her into supporting the bill by promising she could name friends to local government commissions in her home province, Santander. She also testified that at one meeting at the presidential palace Uribe walked in and asked her to vote for the re-election amendment, assuring her that his regime would honour its commitments to her. Medina says that she has gone public because the regime did not deliver on all its promises to her.

So far Medina and two others have been arrested in the bribery scandal, and last month the Supreme Court sentenced her to 47 months house arrest for accepting illegal favours in exchange for supporting the constitutional amendment that allowed for Uribe's re-election. Sabas Pretelt and other former members of the Uribe regime have also officially been charged with bribing Medina, but Pretelt has said he will not be returning to Colombia.

When sentencing Medina the Supreme Court also asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the re-election process. However, on June 26th, while the country waited for the courts to rule on the legality of Uribe's re-election, the President hastily convened a press conference and called for a referendum to decide if new presidential elections should be held. Uribe also implied that the Supreme Court was being influenced by outside interests that are opposed to his rule.

Uribe's call for a referendum has been condemned both inside and outside Colombia. Critics fear that the referendum will be used by the Colombian strongman to ignore court rulings, damage the constitutional balance of powers and advance the idea of him being allowed to extend his time in power.

Carlos Gaviria Diaz, the leader of the main opposition party, Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA), reacted sharply to Uribe's referendum call. "Now is the time for all democratic sectors (social and political) in the country to come to the defence of what little of our democracy we have left. We must rally behind our courts and scream with all the force of our voice that Uribe must not continue to govern the country to preserve his impunity and impose a populist dictatorship" he said. Gaviria Diaz's comments carry particular weight as he is a former president of the Constitutional Court as well as a constitutional law professor.

Other opponents of Uribe argue that as the Congressional vote which allowed him to run for re-election was itself invalid, that he is an illegitimate president and should resign. "Uribe essentially carried out a coup d'etat with the illegal approval of the bill that allowed him to stand for re-election," said opposition Senator Gustavo Petro. "The referendum would deepen that coup."

The next presidential elections are scheduled for May 2010. Without another constitutional change, Uribe is ineligible to run.

For further coverage see:

Uribe's 2006 Reelection "Flawed" - Supreme Court

Colombia polarized by Uribe's battle with courts

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