Bogotá, Colombia (AP) – Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe harshly criticized the international community for having what he considers a double standard by applauding a recent breakthrough in peace talks with leftist rebels that he says undermine the nation's rule of law.
Uribe told The Associated Press that it's incoherent 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 with guerrillas he says are behind scores of atrocities during the country's long-running 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," said the hardline former president.
His remarks came after 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 the three-year-old talks that paves the way for a final deal to be inked within six months. Under the agreement rebels that confess abuses to special peace tribunals, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive a maximum 8 years of labor under unspecified conditions but not prisons. War crimes committed by Colombia's military will also be judged by the tribunals and 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 major reduction in kidnapping and murders. Now a senator for his fledgling Democratic Center party, the 63-year-old remains a key power broker. In August, before the recent breakthrough, he had an approval rating almost double that of Santos, his former defense minister turned arch enemy.
As the FARC's most-vocal critic, he's also the country's most-heavily guarded politicians, crisscrossing the country nonstop protected by more than 20 bodyguards and a caravan of armor-plated SUVs.
But as the peace talks have advanced, he's found himself more isolated politically, with even former allies in the U.S. privately criticizing his obstinacy and many victims, as well as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor expressing cautious optimism in the peace talks taking place in Havana, Cuba.
He's also seen his once-sterling reputation tarnished by the conviction or investigation of a several former allies for illegally wiretapping political opponents and ties to right-wing militias he negotiated a peace deal with while in power.
Uribe said that while he's not opposed to a peace deal, rebel leaders need to pay for their war crimes in a more meaningful way that ensures victims the right to justice. As an example, he held out his decision to extradite to the U.S. on drug charges more than a dozen right-wing warlords after finding they had reneged on a peace deal.
Uribe called the refusal by the FARC's top leader Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, to apologize to the rebels' victims in a first-ever TV interview this week another affront that further distances Colombia from an eventual reconciliation.
"More than standing up for victims, he's offending them," said Uribe, whose father, a rancher, was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt in the early 1980s.
Under his party's alternative proposal for justice, military personnel — who are accused of killing 3,000 civilians falsely labeled rebels during his government — would be spared what he considers a humiliation of being tried before foreign judges in the same special tribunals that will mete out punishments for the FARC.
In the view of Uribe, many of Santos' peace gestures are unnecessary. The FARC are overwhelmingly rejected by Colombians and he argues would already have been extinguished as a fighting force if not for their heavy involvement drug trafficking — he calls them the world's largest cocaine cartel — and the backing of neighboring Venezuela's socialist government.
For now, he says he'll press his case about the deal's risks in the run-up to an eventual referendum. He also hasn't given up on securing more international support but said he's prepared to follow his convictions regardless of whether it materializes.
"We'll fight with or without support. We're used to undertaking these fights alone."