Colombia ex-rebel freed from second detention in drug case

Colombia ex-rebel freed from second detention in drug case

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A top rebel peace negotiator wanted in the United States for allegedly conspiring to traffic cocaine was freed from detention for the second time in less than a month Thursday in a case that continues to stir emotions in Colombia.

Seuxis Hernandez was freed one day after the Supreme Court ruled that he should be released in a decision welcomed by his supporters and decried by critics who assailed it as a disgrace to victims of Colombia's long civil conflict.

Vice President Marta Lucia Ramirez said it was, "painful for the country that someone involved in drug trafficking . with cartels that have caused so much damage to Colombia can be free on the streets as if nothing had happened."

But she said that President Ivan Duque's government would respect the decision.

The case of the man best known by his alias, Jesus Santrich, has revealed the continuing rifts within Colombia over the 2016 peace accord to end Latin America's longest-running conflict. Many in Colombia feel the rebels were let off easy and are particularly irked by their presence in congress before being held accountable for war crimes.

Santrich, one of the first rebels to bet on peace, was jailed last year on accusations that he conspired to move 10 tons of cocaine with a wholesale value of $15 million.

A special peace tribunal created to investigate war crimes ruled earlier in May that Santrich should be released because it did not have sufficient evidence to determine whether or not the alleged acts happened before or after the signing of the accord.

Under the agreement, rebels who lay down their weapons and confess crimes are spared jail time and extradition but aren't protected for crimes committed after the signing.

Santrich was released but quickly detained again as part of a new investigation based on additional information provided by U.S. authorities. The Supreme Court ordered him released again Wednesday, contending that because Santrich is a lawmaker, the nation's highest court is the institution charged with weighing his case.

The magistrates ordered him freed while the accusations are examined.

After his release Thursday, Santrich was driven to the headquarters for the political party formed as part of the peace accord by ex-combatants. The rebels were guaranteed 10 seats in congress, one of which belongs to Santrich, though he has not yet been sworn in.

Santrich said he remains committed to abiding by the peace process and stands ready to "clarify any doubt that might exist about my conduct."

"Long live peace in Colombia!" he shouted from a balcony to supporters.

The latest developments come at a difficult moment for Duque, who campaigned on promises to change aspects of the accord, including the peace tribunal. He pushed forward six reforms in congress but they did not pass. Colombia's Constitutional Court ratified lawmakers' rejection and urged Duque to swiftly sign on to the law this week.

Duque said new evidence gathered by prosecutors clearly indicates that the alleged crimes took place after the signing of the accord. He added that he is supporting efforts to ensure that Santrich is put behind bars again.

"I want to be clear and explicit: Mafiosos need to be in jail and they need to receive an exemplary punishment from Colombian society," he said.

Jorge Gallego, a professor at Colombia's Rosario University, said the latest developments have provoked a "climate of pessimism" around the accord.

But he added that, "I think it's very important to send a signal that at least the judicial system is trying to protect the accord."

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