Fugitive Catholic priest captured

Last updated 17:19 01/02/2014

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Colombian officials have announced the capture of a fugitive Catholic priest who was convicted in absentia last year of organising a killer far-right militia made up of members of a dismantled paramilitary bloc.

For nearly a decade from 2003, the Rev Oscar Albeiro Ortiz formed and ran an organisation engaged in murder, extortion and forced displacement, according to his sentencing document.

From his pulpit in San Antonio de Prado, a village near Medellín, Ortiz had accompanied members of the paramilitary bloc, then recruited them after the bloc was ostensibly disbanded under a peace pact brokered by the government of then-president Alvaro Uribe.

Critics of that "peace process" point to cases such as that of Ortiz as evidence that it was a sham.

Ortiz was arrested in 2010 but cleared by a lower court and continued to maintain that he was innocent.

But he was later retried and convicted last August of criminal conspiracy and sentenced to 19 years in prison. He was rearrested on Thursday night in the town of La Virginia in Risaralda state.

His sentence, a copy of which the Associated Press obtained, says investigators using wiretaps had overheard Ortiz fingering as leftist rebels people who later turned up murdered.

The sentence said that people beaten or driven from their homes by paramilitary henchmen of Ortiz were told they were being punished "for disobeying the orders of the priest".

One witness quoted in the sentence described Ortiz "as a person of two faces: the good angel and the bad angel" and described seeing him late at night drinking with death squad members.

When Ortiz announced to his faithful at church one Sunday that some people would be coming to protect them, the witness said, he was referring to the arrival of paramilitaries who formerly belonged to the Cacique Nutibara bloc, which had killed hundreds of people.

The so-called paramilitaries, organised under the umbrella of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, or AUC, committed more than 70% of the killings in the country's nearly half-century-old dirty war, according to prosecutors.

The AUC "demobilised" between 2003 and 2005, its leaders surrendering in exchange for reduced sentences of up to eight years in prison if they confessed to their crimes.

Their foes in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are now engaged in peace talks with the government in Cuba.

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- AP

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