WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge pressed pause on a legal battle Monday brought by a former Colombian paramilitary leader asking the court to green-light his deportation to Italy, claiming fear of persecution and torture if extradited to Colombia after 12-years imprisonment in the United States for trafficking cocaine.
Salvatore Mancuso, 56, had petitioned the Washington federal court to force the Department of Homeland Security to follow through with plans to send him to Italy. Holding citizenship in Colombia and Italy, Mancuso faces additional criminal charges in both countries.
U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon agreed to order a stay of proceedings at the request of Mancuso’s attorneys and the Justice Department after the government communicated it planned to deport the former warlord to Italy by no later than Sep. 4.
“I’m optimistic that everything will get done on the 4th,” Leon, a George W. Bush appointee, said Monday.
Once the top commander of Colombia’s main paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC, Mancuso is one of the most high-profile Colombian drug lords to face trafficking charges in the U.S. In 2008, he admitted to directing an operation that manufactured and shipped more than 138,000 kilograms of cocaine.
Currently detained by immigration officials at a federal facility in Georgia, he did not appear during the virtual hearing held Monday.
His attorneys argued in a petition filed last week that Mancuso has long admitted responsibility for his crimes and has well-founded fears of persecution and torture in Colombia.
They claimed Attorney General William Barr, along with four top immigration officials, including Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, have illegally held Mancuso in federal custody beyond the maximum 90 days allowed before the removal of noncitizens.
Mancuso completed his sentence in March, but remains detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement despite a final order signed April 15 approving his removal to Italy.
“There is no valid legal or administrative reason why Mr. Mancuso should not be forthwith delivered for removal,” his attorneys argued in a memo filed late Sunday.
Immigration attorney Manuel J. Retureta, representing Mancuso, said during the hearing that he is hopeful the government will follow through with the agreements reached Monday.
“Hopefully we can just file our motion to dismiss shortly,” Retureta said, indicating the petition for mandamus will be dropped if the government deports Mancuso by Sep. 4.
The former right-wing militia leader claimed the delay was caused by a coordination between the U.S. and Colombia to facilitate a new extradition request, after an initial attempt fell apart due to a warrant dismissal.
Mancuso’s attorneys argued the former right-wing militia leader had provided testimony implicating high-ranking Colombian officials in drug trafficking exploits, among them 50 senators, a former president and a current ambassador.
“The petitioner, through his extensive declarations made enemies at the highest levels of power, including high ranking officers of the ruling party in Colombia and inner circle of the current administration,” the mandamus petition filed on Aug. 17 states.
Colombian President Iván Duque announced over Twitter last week — just three days after Mancuso filed his petition — that he had asked the U.S. to extradite the detainee, claiming he will seek international assistance if Mancuso is sent to Italy.
But the memo filed by Mancuso’s attorneys in the lead up to Monday’s hearing includes a communication from an ICE official, dated the same day as Duque’s tweet, indicating plans to remove Mancuso to Italy were moving forward.
The Colombian president has accused Mancuso of “crimes against humanity.”
The Andean country claims the former right-wing militia leader is responsible for more than 1,500 murders or forced disappearances; many stem from his role as the AUC’s top leader so cannot be recognized as offenses and prosecuted under U.S. law.
But Mancuso’s attorneys had urged the Washington court to weigh that their client had helped negotiate a 2005 peace deal that demobilized paramilitary groups and capped prison terms at eight years for militia leaders who confessed to their crimes.
They argued Mancuso prompted thousands of combatants to lay down their arms and turn themselves over to Colombian authorities.
“He has shown remorse and never ignored the deplorable methods used to finance and fight a war against left wing guerrilla forces,” the Aug. 17 petition states.
Mancuso has also applied for asylum in the United States, though his attorneys recognized in correspondence with immigration officials submitted with last week’s petition that he may not be eligible. His ex-wife and youngest child are U.S. citizens who were granted asylum.