Colombia's top court orders release of ex-rebel wanted by US

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Bogota (AFP)

Colombia's Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the "immediate release" of a former rebel leader accused of drug trafficking and shot down revisions to the country's peace accord in a double blow for President Ivan Duque.

Jesus Santrich is suspected of participating in the trafficking of 10 tons of cocaine to the US, which is seeking his extradition, and has been in prison since April 2018.

Santrich was on a list of members of the newly created Common Alternative Revolutionary Force political party due to take up one of 10 congress seats reserved for the communists as part of the historic 2016 peace accord that ended more than a half century of armed conflict.

The pact stipulated that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) would turn into a political party, with 10 seats reserved in congress until 2026.

But Santrich, who is blind, was captured by authorities before he could take up his senate seat.

Although the 52-year-old was released from detention earlier this month, following an order by the special peace court tasked with judging crimes committed during Colombia's long armed conflict, he was re-arrested as he left prison.

The Supreme Court said it -- and not the lower courts -- were responsible for handling the case of Santrich, whose real name is Seuxis Paucias Hernandez, due to his status as an elected lawmaker.

Under pressure from Washington, Duque's government was firmly opposed to Santrich's release and had planned to send him to the US.

Under the terms of the peace accord signed in December 2016 between FARC rebels and the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos, former guerrillas who commit crimes after the pact was signed are tried in a normal court and lose the benefits afforded by the accord, such as a ban on extradition.

The accusations against Santrich, who insists he is innocent, date from after the peace accord was signed.

The FARC party has denounced the accusations against Santrich as a "judicial setup."

- No modifications -

In a separate ruling, the court rejected a series of modifications to the country's 2016 peace agreement proposed by Duque's government.

Duque, who trails in the polls, was elected last year on a pledge to roll back some aspects of the 2016 deal that saw FARC transformed into a political party -- which he sees as too soft.

The accord grants immunity from prosecution to combatants in Colombia's long-running civil war provided they tell the truth about their conduct, make amends with victims and renounce violence.

"I accept the decision," Duque said after the court ruling at a public ceremony in Bogota, adding that he would not end his push to correct "things that are not going well" with the accord.

"We must continue to build a peace with legality and without impunity," he added.

Colombia, the world's leading producer of cocaine, is just emerging from over a half century of civil war waged by guerrillas, paramilitaries, armed forces and drug traffickers.

burs-gle/mtp