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Colombian leader faces criticism for opining in Uribe case

FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2019 file photo, senator and former president Alvaro Uribe arrives to the Supreme Court for questioning in an investigation for...

FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2019 file photo, senator and former president Alvaro Uribe arrives to the Supreme Court for questioning in an investigation for...

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian leader Iván Duque is defending his right to opine personally on the judicial proceedings against his mentor, the powerful ex-President Álvaro Uribe, who has been placed under house arrest while being investigated for witness tampering.

Duque insisted Thursday that as president he should “invite the country to reflect” on what he sees as contradictions in the nation’s justice system exposed by the case.

In an online meeting with international journalists, the president said there is a “great imbalance” when former leftist rebels who signed a 2016 peace accord are allowed to remain free as they go before a peace tribunal or face criminal charges while Uribe, who is still under investigation, is ordered detained.

“I have been, am and will be a believer of his innocence,” Duque said.

The president has faced criticism from civil rights groups for his outspoken posture on a case that has divided the nation and once again revealed simmering tensions over how to handle crimes committing during Latin America's longest running civil conflict.

The Supreme Court is probing claims Uribe was involved in bribing witnesses who had information allegedly linking him to a paramilitary group. Such groups were organized by landlords, sometimes with the complicity of the state, to fight guerrillas who espoused a leftist ideology while often resorting to kidnapping and extortion.

The violent conflict between the state, rebels and paramilitary groups left hundreds of thousands dead, displaced or missing.

Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco wrote on Twitter that Duque has committed a “great error” by opining as both president and citizen.

“You are the president of the Republic of Colombia and have an obligation to respect and protect the division of powers and rule of law,” he wrote.

Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, said that such strong personal statements calls into question the judiciary’s decisions, and “I think that erodes the rule of law in the country,."

The Supreme Court ordered Uribe detained on house arrest Tuesday after saying it weighed ample evidence and concluded there was a possible risk of obstruction of justice if he were to remain free during the probe.

Uribe is one of the nation’s most enduring political voices but his legacy is divisive. Many Colombians hold him up as a near-savior who turned the tide on the conflict with rebels through a strong military offense that pushed them to the negotiating table. Others say he should be remembered as an iron-fisted leader who escaped accountability for the human rights abuses that took place during his administration.