(Washington, DC) – A witness connected to a criminal investigation of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez was murdered on April 14, 2018, and other witnesses have been threatened, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should redouble its protection of witnesses and their relatives.

The Supreme Court ordered the investigation on February 16. Uribe, now a senator, filed a criminal complaint in 2012 against Senator Iván Cepeda, contending that he had used “fraudulent” testimony to implicate Uribe and his brother Santiago in paramilitary atrocities in the 1990s. The Supreme Court rejected the allegations against Cepeda and instead initiated an investigation into whether Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010, had tampered with witnesses, pressing them to say that Cepeda had bribed them to implicate the former president.

“The Criminal Chamber of Colombia’s Supreme Court has shown impressive courage in initiating this investigation of Uribe,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But the truth may never be uncovered if the government does not ensure full protection for the witnesses and their relatives.”

Media reports indicate that two men riding a motorcycle without license plates fatally shot Carlos Enrique Areiza Arango, a former paramilitary death squad member and one of the witnesses in the case, on April 14 at a mall in downtown Bello, Antioquia.

In its February ruling, the Supreme Court urged authorities to increase security for the three witnesses – Areiza, and Juan Guillermo Monsalve and Pablo Hernán Sierra, two other death squad members. The court said that the witnesses lived in “constant fear” of reprisal.

In 2014, Areiza told court prosecutors that Luis Fernando Ramos, a former governor and Uribe ally, had colluded with paramilitary groups. But in 2015, several Colombian newspapers published a letter supposedly signed by Areiza, in which he said that Senator Cepeda had offered him 100 million Colombian pesos (roughly US$35,000) to falsely implicate Uribe and Ramos in crimes.

In 2016, Areiza was convicted for falsely testifying that Ramos was involved in collusion with paramilitary groups, after he admitted in a plea agreement to the false testimony. The Supreme Court’s February ruling ordered an investigation into the “questionable” plea agreement.

Areiza told the Supreme Court in his testimony for the Uribe-Cepeda case that the letter was fabricated with blank sheets of paper he had signed. A Colombian journalist, Daniel Coronell, made public a video on April 21 in which Areiza says that he is “very concerned about the issues around that letter” and “starting to fear for [his] life.” Areiza told the court that he was receiving threats due to his testimony against Ramos and that he had signed the papers so he “wouldn’t end up killed.”

The issue of Uribe’s involvement with paramilitary groups had been raised earlier, in 2011, by Monsalve and Sierra, who gave Cepeda videotaped testimony implicating Uribe and his brother in creating a death squad in Antioquia known as the “Metro block.” Monsalve and Sierra told the court that Cepeda had not bribed him to make those statements or asked him to implicate the former president.

Monsalve received “continuous and repeated threats” while in prison, the Supreme Court found in its February ruling. In September 2011, Monsalve sent a letter to then-Attorney General Viviane Morales saying that his relatives in Antioquia had received “death threats” from someone who had told them he should “backtrack” and say he was insane.

In response to Monsalve’s allegations, former president Uribe’s lawyer gave the court a letter from a prisoner who said he had overheard Monsalve in the prison courtyard boasting that he lied because Cepeda was “giving him money.” But the court found that the prisoner’s letter was “implausible” because, in oral testimony, he was not able to explain the “situation, motives, or circumstances” surrounding his allegations.

Sierra told the Supreme Court that he had not suffered direct threats, but one of his lawyers, Carlos Toro, had resigned in 2014 due to “intimidations.” At the time, Toro told the press that one of his sons was approached by armed men who told him that he should not continue “working in Medellin and on issues that are none of his business.” Toro said he thought they were referring to Sierra because he was his only client in Medellin at the time.

In 2011, Alvaro and Santiago Uribe filed a criminal complaint accusing Sierra of “slander.” In May 2015, a court in Antioquia acquitted Sierra. A higher court confirmed the ruling in June 2015.

On April 16, the Supreme Court urged the Attorney General’s Office to prioritize its investigation into Areiza’s murder. On April 18, Senator Uribe asked the Attorney General’s Office to promptly investigate the murder.

“The Attorney General’s Office should conduct a prompt and exhaustive investigation into the motives behind the murder of Areiza, as well as the threats to the other witnesses,” Vivanco said.