BOGOTA The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has called on Colombia to suspend a decision to oust the mayor of its capital, putting pressure on President Juan Manuel Santos to intervene in the sensitive case just as his re-election campaign begins.
Gustavo Petro, 53, Colombia's second-most powerful official and a former leftist guerrilla, is set to be ousted in around 10 days after appeals failed to overturn the inspector general's decision which also bans him from public office for 15 years.
That decision last December by the right-wing official, Alejandro Ordonez, was widely seen as disproportionate and an attack on a left-wing politician that would bar him from running in presidential elections in 2018.
Ordonez's unilateral ruling, punishing Petro for his disastrous attempt to put waste collection back under public management, set off protests in Bogota over a case that could impact upcoming elections and the country's peace process.
The Commission which serves the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, called on Colombia in an online statement to suspend Ordonez's December ruling to guarantee Petro's political rights and enable him to serve the rest of his four-year mandate.
That statement came late on Tuesday straight after the Council of State, the highest authority judging cases involving government bodies, rejected a series of appeals Petro made, exhausting his options for recourse.
"I await all Bogota citizens to celebrate this democratic triumph. Colombia will change," Petro wrote on Twitter in response to the Commission's recommendation.
It throws a political hot potato into the lap of President Santos ahead of May 25 elections in which he will seek a second term. The centrist politician will face criticism from parties to the left or the right, whatever fate he decides for Petro.
Ordonez's decision was widely perceived as a move by a member of Colombia's traditionally right-wing political establishment to undermine the left and could also dent the trust of Marxist FARC guerrillas negotiating a peace deal with the government.
Both sides have reached a partial agreement on the FARC's participation in politics though no specific details have been revealed. A decision to remove Petro could raise concerns among the FARC that unilateral judicial moves could also be used to diminish their eventual entry into politics.
Petro's arrival at the city hall in January 2012 was held up as an example in Colombia that guerrillas could transition from violence to politics.
Ordonez's decision to dismiss Petro was as a result of the mayor's ill-fated attempt to reclaim management of waste collection from private operators. Poor preparation resulted in rubbish piling up in the streets for days before the duties were returned to private contractors.
The case has been further complicated by disagreement among Colombia's judiciary about the weight the Commission's decision bears. Justice Minister, Alfonso Gomez Mendez, says the Commission's recommendation is no more than just that. Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre said it is a legally-binding decision.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Eric Walsh and Andrew Hay)