BOGOTA, Colombia — The scandal over accusations that President Ernesto Samper's 1994 presidential campaign was financed with more than $6 million in drug money moved from behind closed doors to Colombian TV screens Tuesday.
The nation's Congress began televised debates on whether the president should be impeached for his alleged role in the scandal, which has landed seven legislators and one Cabinet minister in jail.
Samper faces charges that he accepted drug money and falsified documents to cover it up. Until Tuesday, evidence against the president was heard secretly by a congressional panel, although much of the information was leaked to the press.
Polls show that more than half of Colombians believe their president is guilty--and that many also believe he will be absolved by his Liberal Party's majority.
Colombians are expected to follow the debate as closely as Americans did the Watergate hearings more than two decades ago. Many observers predict that under the scrutiny of television cameras, Congress could even render a surprising verdict.
"Televising the debates is going to allow citizens to oversee this trial and to be strict in their judgments," said Juan Camilo Restrepo, a senator from the Social Conservative Party.
"Congressmen who cast their votes for political convenience rather than [on] legal evidence will pay the price in the coming elections of 1998," he said.
Until now, the investigation has been influenced by back-room deals, government critics said. Opposition politicians claim that pro-Samper congressmen have received more than $150 million in extra funding for their regions along with dozens of governmental posts for their friends in exchange for taking the president's side.
Besides the seven members of Congress already in jail, another 13 are under investigation. Deputy Prosecutor General Adolfo Salamanca has estimated that half the 165 legislators in Colombia's lower house have a connection to organized crime.
Police and soldiers cordoned off the Capitolio Nacional in Bogota, where Congress meets, sweeping through shops and checking sewers for explosives. The search followed threats of terrorist attacks by a vigilante group.