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Jorge Noguera, a regional manager of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe's (2002-2010) election campaign in 2002 and head of the secret police during the Uribe administration, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison. "I trusted him; if he committed a crime it pains me, and I apologise to the people," Uribe said Wednesday.

The Supreme Court found Noguera, the former head of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), Colombia's secret police, guilty of aggravated conspiracy and homicide in the 2004 murder of university professor and activist Alfredo Correa de Andreis. He was also found guilty of destroying and hiding public documents and revealing secret information.

Noguera was barred from public office and other rights for 20 years, and ordered to pay a fine to the state, as well as about 100,000 dollars in reparations to the Correa de Andreis family.

The trial of Uribe's former intelligence chief was limited to allegations made in the media between the second half of 2005 and mid-2006 by a former employee of Noguera's, Rafael García, head of the DAS computer department who confessed to connections with far-right paramilitary groups.

The charges referred to Noguera's links with the North Block of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), commanded by Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, a.k.a. "Jorge 40", the aim of which was "to favour paramilitary actions in the northern zone of the country," the verdict states.

Noguera provided members of the North Block with lists of names of people who were subsequently murdered, the verdict says.

Databases found in a computer seized from "Don Antonio", the alias of a paramilitary under the orders of "Jorge 40", contained the names of his murder victims, which turned out to be the same as those on the DAS lists.

"The Court showed that Jorge Noguera set up a criminal ring, and it names the officials he appointed within the DAS who had ties to the paramilitaries," Alirio Uribe (no relation to the ex president), the victims' families lawyer and head of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective which works for human rights, told IPS.

He added that, according to the Court, "Noguera put the DAS at the service of the paramilitaries, especially the North Block."

At a press conference, Alirio Uribe said the case does not rest on "just one piece of evidence, but on abundant proof, including testimonies, documents and reports.

"There was testimony from at least 50 witnesses," mainly "state employees," from DAS and the police but also from former paramilitary commanders like Salvatore Mancuso, "Jorge 40" and "Don Antonio".

With regard to former president Uribe's apology, the lawyer said it was "not enough."

Ex president Uribe "should apologise for all the officials who are now under investigation," including those linked to a spate of corruption cases that arose during his presidency, he added.

"It was during president Uribe's government that the DAS became a criminal instrument," Alirio Uribe said.

"It is officials appointed by the then president who are now being prosecuted. The intelligence gathered by DAS was for the president. I think it is insufficient, therefore, to say that a mistake was made or to apologise for having appointed Noguera to DAS," he said.

Ex president Uribe himself, however, appears to remain beyond the reach of the law. The Court's verdict indicates that the investigation "does not reveal" participation by the then president in the action taken jointly by DAS and the paramilitaries.

Before the text of the verdict was published, IPS interviewed lawyer Álvaro Córdoba, head of the legal department of the human rights NGO Centro Alteridad y Derechos and adviser to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES).

"It is surprising that the idea is still being sold that many of the (Uribe administration's) main collaborators were acting on their own initiative, and that the president was some sort of quixotic figure who never knew anything about anything," said Córdoba.

Uribe continues to be portrayed as someone who was "fighting only for justice and transparency, while in the background actions were being taken outside the bounds of the law," he added. "He is not even being held to account for appointing the collaborators he chose."

Córdoba attributed "this situation, which borders on the absurd," to presidential immunity, under which Colombian presidents can only be legally accused by parliament, where complaints must first be dealt with by the lower chamber's Accusations Commission.

"In all the history of the Accusations Commission, there has not been one single successful instance of an investigation against a president," he said. "This is what prevents the justice authorities from making headway in prosecuting" Uribe.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International emphasised that "the sentence against Noguera is a key step towards justice in Colombia," and pointed out that the scandal in which DAS is implicated also includes "a massive defamation campaign against human rights defenders, politicians, journalists and judges, among others."

Susan Lee, director of the Americas programme for the London-based Amnesty International, said in Bogotá: "What we want to see now is that all those responsible for the crimes committed by the DAS, whoever they are, be promptly brought to justice."

Correa de Andreis, who was 52 when he was killed, was an agronomist and sociologist leading an investigation into illegal seizures of land from campesinos (small farmers) displaced by the internal war in Colombia, in which leftwing guerrillas who took up arms in 1964 have been fighting the armed forces and paramilitary groups.

The professor was arrested by DAS in June 2004, accused of being an ideologue for the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was freed in July that year, and two months later he was murdered.

When the press began to publish incriminatory revelations about Noguera, Uribe appointed him Colombian consul in Milan, Italy, and said he was "a good fellow."

Constanza Vieira