Colombia ex-rebel, wanted in US, sworn in as congressman

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A former Colombian rebel leader wanted in the U.S. on drug charges was sworn into office as a congressman on Tuesday in a case that has riled detractors of the still-fragile peace accord with leftist rebels that ended decades of conflict.

Seuxis Hernandez took an oath pledging to uphold Colombia’s constitution in a simple ceremony held inside an office at the legislature.

“I promise,” he said, lifting one hand while the other grasped onto a walking stick the blind rebel ideologist uses to get around.

The oath caps a turbulent month that has renewed debate in Colombia over the peace accord’s stipulations for prosecuting rebel crimes. The man best known by his alias, Jesus Santrich, has been twice released from jail in recent weeks after two courts ordered him freed despite a U.S. drug warrant seeking his extradition.

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While Santrich remains under investigation, he was allowed to take office after a commission upheld the validity of his election last year to one of 10 seats in Congress guaranteed to former rebels as part of the peace deal. Members of Congress have limited immunity from prosecution.

“I appreciate everyone who has raised their voices to make the final accord agreed to in Havana a reality,” Santrich said after taking the oath. He asked detractors not to, “insist on shredding to pieces the reconciliation Colombians have dreamed of.”

President Ivan Duque was elected to office on a platform promising to reform aspects of the 2016 accord and called on the inspector general to suspend the swearing-in. He said recent evidence revealed after the Special Peace Jurisdiction ordered Santrich freed supports U.S. claims that he conspired to ship 10 tons of cocaine even after the peace deal was signed.

“How can a country accept allowing someone clearly accused of participating in drug trafficking to take the oath of office?” Duque asked.

Under the accord, 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. U.S. authorities claim the alleged crimes took place after the signing. But the Special Peace Jurisdiction ruled there wasn’t provided sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion.

Santrich was briefly released but then detained again as part of a new investigation based on additional information provided by U.S. authorities. The Supreme Court ordered him freed a second time since, as a lawmaker, Santrich has limited immunity and only the highest court can rule on his case.

The son of two school teachers, Santrich joined a local youth communist group as a student and entered the guerrilla movement in his early 20s. He gradually rose through the rebel ranks to eventually join the central high command.

He was one of the first rebels to bet on peace, traveling to Norway’s capital in 2012 to kick of negotiations with Colombia’s government and then participating in talks that continued the next four years in Cuba, where he earned a reputation as being a hardliner.

Santrich was arrested last April, shortly after the legislative election. He has denied the charges against him.

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