Nation & World

Ruling sets stage for possible extradition of ex-Colombian official facing corruption charges

In a December interview, former Colombian Minister of Agriculture Andres Arias Leiva explains his side of a Miami federal court case in which Colombia is seeking his extradition on corruption charges.
In a December interview, former Colombian Minister of Agriculture Andres Arias Leiva explains his side of a Miami federal court case in which Colombia is seeking his extradition on corruption charges.

A former top Colombian government official wanted on corruption charges in his homeland has suffered a major setback in his quest to block his extradition from Miami to Bogotá.

Andres Arias Leiva, 43, a former agriculture minister, might have to return to face those charges after a federal magistrate judge in Miami ruled on Monday that an extradition treaty between the U.S. and Colombia “remains in full force and effect.”

Lawyers for Arias Leiva, who left for South Florida in 2014 and was arrested last year at his home in Weston, had asserted that the treaty was not in effect and therefore the U.S. and Colombian governments had no authority to seek approval for his extradition in Miami federal court. They tried to have his complaint dismissed and arrest vacated, to no avail.

Magistrate Judge John O’Sullivan concluded that the two nations did have that power under the treaty because “the record evidence establishes that it is the official position of the executive branches of the United States and Colombia that the extradition treaty remains in full force and effect.”

Andrés Felipe Arias Leiva, Colombia's former agriculture minister who faces possible extradition for alleged corruption, said Tuesday that the case is of a political nature because he opposed the strategy of the current Colombian president, Juan M

However, Arias Leiva’s politically fraught case is not over.

His Miami attorneys, David O. Markus, Marc Seitles and Ricardo Bascuas, challenged the magistrate’s ruling to a U.S. District Court judge on Wednesday by using their same argument over the validity of the extradition treaty. It is unclear how long that appeal will take to resolve.

The lawyers asserted in the latest court filing that “the undisputed facts show that Colombia does not consider itself bound by the treaty and does not observe it.”

His lawyers argued that a Colombian diplomatic note itself verified that the extradition treaty is not in effect because the law that activated it in the 1980s was ruled unconstitutional by the Colombian supreme court. The Colombian diplomatic note indeed says that, but it also indicates that the treaty is in force for international purposes because neither the U.S. nor Colombia has renounced it.

If the magistrate judge’s decision on the extradition treaty is upheld, Arias Leiva will then challenge the merits of Colombia’s extradition request, his lawyers said Friday.

Last month, the U.S. attorney’s office argued to O’Sullivan, who had appeared to be leaning toward the side of Arias Leiva, that dismissing his case would endanger the U.S. extradition practice with Colombia, undermine the war on drugs, and perhaps erode other extradition treaties around the world.

“What would be unprecedented is if this Court were to find that the [extradition] Treaty is not in force, contrary to the views of both parties to it,” federal prosecutor Robert Emery wrote in a filing. “Then the United States would be unable to fulfill its Treaty obligation to extradite Arias Leiva, thereby potentially forcing the United States — and not Colombia — into violation of international law, not to mention potentially destabilizing the United States’ extradition practice worldwide.”

In an interview with el Nuevo Herald in December, Arias Leiva said that his case stems from political persecution.

The reason, according to Arias Leiva: because he opposed Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in a bid that led to a peace pact with the Cuba-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla organization, which Arias Leiva fears could turn his country into another Cuba or Venezuela.

“I came to the United States looking for refuge and asylum for my family and for myself because I was a victim of political persecution by the current government of Colombia,” Arias Leiva said in the interview, after his release on bond by the Miami magistrate judge. “Together with all my political colleagues, starting with former President Álvaro Uribe, we oppose what the government of Juan Manuel Santos is doing with the FARC and the country.”

Arias Leiva warned that if he is extradited to Colombia, he would eventually be murdered in prison as reprisal for his opposition to the Santos strategy that recently led to an agreement that will give FARC a gateway to political power in Colombia. Besides being a guerrilla organization, FARC has been widely linked to drug trafficking.

Santos denied allegations that he has tried to influence Arias Leiva’s extradition, saying the decision is solely in the hands of the courts. Arias Leiva fled to the United States three weeks before judges convicted him of embezzlement by appropriation, a Colombian law that penalizes the unauthorized use of public funds to benefit private entities. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

”The government of Colombia — my government — has never persecuted anyone,” the president said in a statement. “We’ve never moved a finger against Andres Felipe Arias.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this story.