AP Interview: Uribe challenges Colombia's peace breakthrough

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Posted: Oct 02, 2015 1:36 PM
AP Interview: Uribe challenges Colombia's peace breakthrough

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Former President Alvaro Uribe harshly criticized the international community for applauding a recent breakthrough in his successor's peace talks with leftist rebels, saying the deal undermines the rule of law in Colombia.

Uribe told The Associated Press that it's a double standard for the U.S. and Europe to demand jail time for terrorists from Spanish separatist group ETA, the Irish Republican Army or al-Qaida but expect Colombia to demonstrate leniency to guerrillas accused of atrocities during the country's five-decade civil conflict.

"I'm more worried about what Colombians think than the international community because we are the ones who are going to have to live with the consequences of what's happening," Uribe said.

Current President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia announced an agreement last week on the thorny issue of punishment for war crimes, a breakthrough in three-year-old talks that paves the way for a final accord within six months.

Under the agreement, rebels who confess abuses to special peace tribunals, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive a maximum eight years of labor under unspecified conditions, but not prison time. War crimes committed by Colombia's military will also be judged by the tribunals. Combatants caught lying will face penalties of up to 20 years in jail.

Uribe left office in 2010 with an 80 percent approval rating after having driven the FARC from major cities, leading to a big drop in kidnappings and killings. Now a senator for his fledgling Democratic Center party, he remains a key power broker. In August, before the recent breakthrough, he had an approval rating almost double that of Santos, who was Uribe's defense minister.

As the FARC's most vocal critic, Uribe is one of Colombia's most heavily guarded politicians, crisscrossing the country protected by more than 20 bodyguards and a caravan of armor-plated SUVs.

But as the peace talks have advanced, he has found himself more isolated politically, with even former allies in the U.S. privately criticizing his rejection of the negotiations and many Colombian victims, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor expressing cautious optimism about the talks.

He has also seen his reputation tarnished by the conviction or investigation of several former allies for illegally wiretapping political opponents and ties to right-wing militias with which he negotiated a peace deal while in power.

Uribe said that he is not opposed to a peace deal, but that rebel leaders need to pay for war crimes in a more meaningful way to ensure justice for victims. He noted his decision to extradite more than a dozen right-wing warlords to the U.S. on drug charges after finding they reneged on a peace deal.

Uribe said the refusal by the FARC's top leader, Rodrigo Londono, alias Timochenko, to apologize to the rebels' victims in a TV interview this week was another affront that further distances Colombia from an eventual reconciliation.

"More than standing up for victims, he's offending them," said Uribe, whose rancher father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt in the early 1980s.

He objects to Colombian military personnel, who are accused of killing 3,000 civilians falsely labeled as rebels during his administration, being tried before foreign judges in the same special tribunals that will mete out punishments for the FARC.

In Uribe's view, many of Santos' peace gestures are unnecessary. The FARC rebels are overwhelmingly rejected by Colombians and Uribe argues they would already have been extinguished as a fighting force if not for their heavy involvement in cocaine trafficking and the backing of neighboring Venezuela's socialist government.

For now, he said he will press his case about the deal's risks in the run-up to an eventual referendum.

"We'll fight with or without support," he said. "We're used to undertaking these fights alone."

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Associated Press writer Libardo Cardona contributed to this report.

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