(Reuters) – Colombia’s justice minister resigned on Friday over a controversial reform measure into which lawmakers have slipped provisions that could dismiss cases against politicians with links to right-wing paramilitary groups and allow others to go free.
The scandal erupted after congressmen changed a bill aimed at modernizing the overburdened legal system during the reconciliation of the Senate and House drafts – raising questions about the lingering influence of illegal armed groups.
President Juan Manuel Santos sent the legislation back to Congress on Friday. It was the first time a president had done so since Colombia’s 1991 constitution.
“The events of recent days will not let me – because it goes against my principles – continue forward,” Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra told reporters, after only around a year in office.
“We do not have, neither I nor my staff, guilt about what happened with the inclusion of inappropriate texts,” he said.
On Thursday, Santos said that if the law went into effect, the Attorney General’s office would have to halt 1,500 investigations into officials and former officials, some of whom were already in jail and could be released.
Over the last decade, scores of members of Congress have been jailed for links to paramilitary groups, and new accusations and cases continue to arise six years since the militias officially demobilized in a government-run process.
Paramilitaries were set up in the 1980s by rich landowners looking for protection from rebels. But as they pushed back insurgents, the militias often massacred people on suspicion that they had colluded with guerrillas. They often boasted about ties to the country’s political elite.