Ex-rebel in Colombia recaptured after release from jail

BOGOTA — A former Colombian rebel leader was re-arrested Friday moments after his release from jail by a special peace tribunal whose protection of him from extradition to the U.S. has triggered an institutional crisis and revived debate about justice for victims of the country’s armed conflict.

Prison authorities escorted Seuxis Hernandez in a wheelchair to the gates of La Picota jail outside Bogota on Friday as dozens of armed riot police held back a small group of supporters who’ve gathered at the prison the past two days to demand his release. His wrists were bandaged from what prison authorities described earlier as self-inflicted wounds that required emergency medical attention.

But as soon as he was beyond the prison gates, a group of police took him back into state custody, arguing that new evidence provided in the past 48 hours by the U.S. gave greater clarity about his alleged crimes. He was quickly loaded him onto a helicopter and shuttled away from the commotion.

A special tribunal investigating war crimes during Colombia’s decades-long civil conflict ruled Wednesday that the former peace negotiator best known by his alias Jesus Santrich should not be extradited to the United States, where he’s wanted on drug trafficking and conspiracy charges.

The decision triggered the resignation of Colombia’s chief prosecutor and has renewed debate about whether the 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is too lenient with rebel leaders.

At issue is whether the alleged crimes took place before or after the signing of the December 2016 peace accord between the government and the FARC. Rebels who lay down their weapons and confess to crimes are spared jail time and extradition but aren’t protected for crimes committed after the signing.

An Interpol notice for Santrich’s arrest claims he met with cocaine buyers at his residence on Nov. 2, 2017. During that meeting and subsequent negotiations, he and his co-conspirators allegedly discussed plans for a 10-ton shipment to the U.S., boasting they had access to cocaine laboratories and U.S.-registered planes to move the cargo, the notice says.

Santrich has repeatedly professed his innocence, saying he was the victim of a scheme led by the U.S. to put him behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

The case has also complicated already-tense relations with the U.S.

The U.S. Embassy in Bogota this week called the ruling “regrettable,” arguing that the extradition request satisfied all Colombian requirements and firmly established that the alleged crimes took place after the signing of the peace deal.

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