MIAMI – Colombian former Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias, who fled his homeland while on trial for corruption and was subsequently sentenced in absentia to nearly 18 years in prison, was denied bail in the United States on Friday.
The 43-year-old economist, who was arrested Wednesday at his home near Miami, where he has lived since June 2014, appeared Friday before Judge Alicia Otazo Reyes of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.
Otazo Reyes said she denied the bail request because Arias had already shown himself to be a flight risk when he fled Colombia two years ago and because his allegations of political persecution had not been proven in court.
A representative of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office testified at the bail hearing that refusing to extradite Arias to Colombia would harm bilateral relations.
Arias, who served as Colombia’s agriculture minister from 2005 to 2009 and was a presidential candidate in 2010, has filed complaints with the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging that as a member of former President Alvaro Uribe’s Cabinet he is being politically persecuted in his homeland.
Uribe, a hardliner who was Arias’ political mentor, is a harsh critic of current President Juan Manuel Santos and his administration’s peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrilla group.
In 2014, Arias was convicted of steering subsidies intended for poor farmers affected by Colombia’s free-trade agreement with the United States into the hands of wealthy landowners.
He was sentenced by Colombia’s Supreme Court to 17 years and six months in prison and also ordered to pay a fine of 25 billion pesos ($8.7 million at the current exchange rate).
Colombia’s Inspector General’s Office in 2011 also found Arias responsible for “disciplinary failures” during his tenure as agriculture minister and barred him from public office for 16 years.
Arias arrived in the United States on June 14, 2014, the same day a journalist leaked the news that the Supreme Court would deliver a guilty verdict. His wife and their two children – a seven-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy – arrived four days later.
The family then sought political asylum in the United States on the grounds of political persecution in Colombia.
Although the asylum request was accepted for consideration, the family had received no response over the past two years, Catalina Serrano told EFE Thursday, adding that she had felt safe until U.S. marshals arrived at their home and took her husband away on Wednesday.