Friday, February 26, 2021

Monkey business: Parliamentary immunity in Colombia

In Spanish mico means a long-tailed monkey. In Colombian slang it refers to last-minute or surreptitious provisions slipped into legislation, usually to serve shady interests. After two years of toing and froing, on June 20th Congress approved a government-sponsored constitutional reform of the judicial system. But it added so many micos that rather than celebrating, President Juan Manuel Santos is now struggling to get a huge monkey off his back.

As passed, the reform will strip the Supreme Court of the power to investigate allegations of crimes committed by legislators. That is no trivial matter: the court has convicted 44 former members of Congress of ties to right-wing paramilitary groups or other crimes; it is looking into another 100 cases, some involving sitting members. The law hands this task to newly created investigating magistrates, whom critics fear would be political appointees. It would also weaken the ability of the Council of State, another judicial body, to deprive legislators of their seats for ethical lapses.

The amendment has been greeted with popular outrage. Juan Carlos Esguerra, the justice minister, who had urged its approval, resigned. Citizen groups are collecting signatures for a referendum to overturn it.

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In attempting to head off the discontent, Mr Santos found himself in uncharted legal territory. Having discovered that he cannot veto the amendment, he called Congress back into session on June 27th and 28th, urging it to reverse its vote. As The Economist went to press, the outcome was uncertain. Whichever way the vote goes, the issue is likely to end up in the Constitutional Court, the highest tribunal in Colombia. But as with a referendum, that would take months.

The government’s intentions at the outset were worthy enough. An overburdened and archaic judiciary has become a weak link in the battle against violent crime. The reform was supposed to modernise the system, do away with ineffective judicial bodies and allow legislators and senior officials convicted by the Supreme Court the right of appeal. The judiciary was opposed to the changes, until Congress included provisions to extend the term of high-court judges from eight to 12 years and to raise their retirement age to 70.

Some on the left are calling for Congress, in which they have few seats, to be dissolved, and new elections called. Supporters of Álvaro Uribe, a conservative former president, are calling for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. His critics fear he would use this to revive his past attempt, blocked by the Constitutional Court, to scrap term limits. Micos, it seems, are proliferating on all sides.

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