Lawyers tell court: Former Colombian official Andrés Arias is wrongly locked up

Attorneys for Andrés Arias argued the former Colombian official, who is claiming political persecution, cannot be extradited, while the U.S. said a previous judge's extradition order should not be disturbed.

The federal jail in Miami next door to a federal court building

Jeanne Kuang / Injustice Watch

Andrés Arias Leiva is jailed at the federal detention center in Miami, left, next to a federal court building where his hearing was held Monday

MIAMI — A federal magistrate judge on Monday heard attorneys argue for the release of a Colombian former cabinet member who is facing extradition to serve a prison term, his claim that he is being politically persecuted still unheard.

The hearing was based on the claim by Andrés Arias Leiva that Colombia officials built a false case of corruption against him for political reasons, and that he and his family came here in 2014 to seek political asylum. Arias, who had been agriculture minister and a presidential candidate in Colombia, contends that U.S. State Department officials assured him before he fled to the United States that they knew the corruption charges were politically motivated, and encouraged him to seek asylum.

But instead, he has been locked in the federal detention center in Miami as officials take steps to return him back home.

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In the latest in what attorneys anticipate will be a lengthy legal battle, Arias’s attorneys argued to Magistrate Judge Andrea M. Simonton of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida that because Colombian courts have held since 1986 that the treaty was not properly ratified, federal courts lack authority to order Arias’s extradition to Colombia.

His attorney, David Markus, told Simonton that Colombia has at times honored extradition requests from the United States, but other times did not.  “If only the U.S. is bound by the treaty, how can it be in effect?” Markus asked.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Emery, who is pushing for Arias’s extradition, said that the United States considers the treaty to be in force. Despite the 1986 court ruling, Emery said, “The United States believes emphatically that Colombia is complying with the spirit of the extradition treaty.”

Injustice Watch reported last week on the case of Arias, once a rising political star in Colombia who was closely tied to former President Álvaro Uribe. A hearing with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on the asylum claim for Arias and his family was abruptly cancelled in 2014; the U.S. has taken steps to return Arias in the nearly four years since, without ever rescheduling the hearing.

Arias was not brought to court for the hearing Monday because of a court administrative error. In attendance were about 30 supporters of Arias from the Colombian community in Miami.

Emery said Simonton should not disturb the September 2017 ruling of Magistrate Judge John J. O’Sullivan in the extradition case, that Arias could be extradited by the United States. O’Sullivan wrote then, “In applying an extradition treaty, the Court is to construe it liberally in favor of the requesting nation.” He also declined to allow Arias to subpoena State Department employees from the American embassy in Colombia to testify about their alleged role in helping Arias come to the U.S.

Following that hearing, federal officials took Arias into custody. His attorneys on Monday also asked for him to be released on bail as proceedings continue, as he had been before O’Sullivan’s decision, contending he is unlikely to flee a country where he has applied for asylum.

Markus and Emery sparred over whether Arias would be a flight risk if he were released on bail now, with a certification of extradition over his head. Emery said Arias’s flight from the corruption conviction in Colombia, an event he argued that the State Department employees did not assist with, was proof he could flee again. He also cited the U.S. extradition statute which states a judge, on finding a fugitive extraditable, “shall issue his warrant for the commitment of the person so charged to the proper jail, there to remain until such surrender shall be made.”

Emery also noted the international harm that could be done to American diplomacy if Arias fled. “There is no amount of money that would repair” that harm, he said.

Simonton, who said she was initially intending to deny bail, said she would “carefully consider” all arguments before deciding both on whether to grant bail, and on her recommendation to a district judge over the question of whether the extradition case is valid.

“I do think there is a serious risk of flight in this case,” she said.

After the hearing, Arias’s wife Catalina Serrano and his supporters expressed hope he could be released. Serrano, who has offered to surrender her and her children’s passports as a condition of Arias’s release on bail, said her husband has no desire to flee anywhere.

“We came here to stay,” she said.