Colombia frees former FARC leader sought by US

Former commander of Colombia's Marxist Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Common (FARC) Jesus Santrich reacts during a news conference in FARC's headquarters in Bogota May 30, 2019. ― Reuters pic
Former commander of Colombia's Marxist Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Common (FARC) Jesus Santrich reacts during a news conference in FARC's headquarters in Bogota May 30, 2019. ― Reuters pic

BOGOTA, May 31 ― A former FARC guerrilla leader was freed yesterday on orders of the Colombian Supreme Court, drawing an expression of regret from the United States, which wanted him for alleged drug trafficking.

Jesus Santrich, who was arrested in April 2018, walked free from the attorney general's headquarters under a heavy escort, his lawyer Gustavo Gallado told reporters.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered Santrich's immediate release on the grounds that he was protected by parliamentary immunity as a member of Congress.

Santrich, who helped negotiate a 2016 peace between FARC and the government, became a member of Congress under the terms of the peace agreement that saw the guerrilla group become a political party.

He was arrested on a US extradition request before he could take his seat.

The former FARC leader has declared himself innocent of the US charges, insisting they were part of a plot by Washington and Colombian prosecutors.

“It is more likely that cocaine has passed through the nostrils of those who would doubt me than that it has passed through my own hands,” he said during a press conference.

A US State Department spokeswoman said Washington found the Supreme Court decision “regrettable.”

The department later clarified that the spokeswoman was not referring to the court's Wednesday ruling, which “the United States respects” and which did not affect the American extradition request.

Santrich, 52, had previously been ordered released by a justice of the peace who is investigating major crimes committed during the FARC insurgency.

He was rearrested as he was leaving prison on new charges related to the US allegations of cocaine trafficking.

The case has provoked an uproar in Colombia, which is deeply divided over the 2016 peace pact to end a half century of armed conflict.

Under US pressure, President Ivan Duque, who came to power promising to modify the peace accord he sees as too lenient on the rebels, has reaffirmed his intention to extradite Santrich. ― AFP