In “Last Chance for Justice: Dangerous Setbacks for Human Rights and the Fight Against Impunity in Guatemala,” Amnesty International (AI) analyzes current efforts to seek justice for the violations that occurred during the armed conflict of 1960-1996, the possible disbanding of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and the resulting potential implications for the deterioration of rule of law. The report addresses a growing environment of impunity, threats against the independence of prosecutors and judges, and a growing number of threats against human rights defenders (HRDs). The report also provides recommendations for specific groups involved in the justice process.
AI argues that, after 11 years of attempting to create and strengthen the justice system in Guatemala, the impending expiration of CICIG’s mandate—on September 3, 2019—jeopardizes progress to date. CICIG’s original mandate permitted it to carry out independent investigation; provide training, aid, and other resources to Guatemalan prosecutors; and suggest legislation that would combat impunity. Since the creation of CICIG in 2006, the Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) was able to detect more than 60 criminal structures and file over 100 cases related to breaches of international law. When the AI report was published, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala was finalizing a decision on the validity of the Executive’s action to end the mandate of CICIG.
AI argues that conditions for HRDs are deteriorating in Guatemala. According to data from the Unit for the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), in 2018, a record number of 26 killings and 18 attempted killings of HRDs occurred, coinciding with statements made by the government condemning HRDs. Not only are crimes against HRDs often not solved or filed, but HRDs also often face falsified charges. Additionally, AI argues space for dialogue between civil society and the government has shrunk. AI notes concerns that the passing of Bill 5257 could shut down civil society organizations, making the work of HRDs in some cases illegal.
AI argues that the independence, efficiency, and efficacy of judicial authorities in handling high-profile criminal cases are being threatened, fostering impunity. For example, AI argues that since 2018 the combined work of CICIG and the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) has been systematically impeded by parts of the government. For example, AI notes that cooperation between the National Police Service and FECI ended in January 2018 when a new Minister of the Interior was appointed. In addition, AI has noticed several judges have practiced litigio malicioso (malicious litigation)— when judges allow motions from the defense to hinder and delay proceedings. Such cases are further impeded by the inaction in higher courts on appeal.
In its current state, the PPO is not ready for the termination of CICIG’s mandate. Since no safeguard process was established by CICIG, the future abilities of FECI and other similar groups are threatened. FECI suffers from high turnover and understaffing, and the end of CICIG would stop the training of FECI staff. AI argues the remaining vacancies cast doubt on the motives of the Attorney General and PPO, and threatens the viability of open and potential cases.
In addition, AI argues that the validity of the legal system in Guatemala is being threatened by arbitrary and false cases against attorneys and judges. There are around 80 lawsuits against the 64 employees of FECI. Although AI recognizes the importance of accountability, they argue that such proceedings are used to intimidate prosecutors. In addition, AI reports physical and character attacks against attorneys and judges—such as threats of violence, intimidation, stalking, and smear campaigns—increased after November of 2018 when it was announced the mandate of CICIG would not be extended. Yet these problems are not the only ones threatening the validity of the judicial system. AI received information showing judges were appointed to certain high courts that either lack or have questionable experience.
Finally, AI believes that Guatemala’s Congress seeks to destabilize progress through passing bills that foster an environment of impunity. For example, according to AI, the proposed Bill 537 would grant amnesty to individuals charged with or convicted of human rights violations and crimes under international law during the armed conflict.
The following is a summary of selected recommendations from AI’s report. See the report for the full recommendations:
To all the authorities of the State of Guatemala: Consider extending the mandate of CICIG or, if not, allow the PPO to function at full capacity. Ensure the safety and legitimacy of the HRDs and HRD organizations in Guatemala.
To the Attorney General and the Head of the PPO: Guarantee that all prosecutors have the necessary training and resources.
To the judiciary: Ensure the selection of apt judges. Protect and preserve the independence of judges, especially those in high-profile human rights cases.
To the Executive: Allocate ample resources to the judiciary to operate at full capacity. Adopt and fulfill a public policy to safeguard the rights of the HRDs in agreement with the standards set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
To the Guatemalan Congress: Abstain from passing bills that would obstruct the justice process and may negatively affect the standing of human rights, and abstain from revoking agreements that protect the justice process and human rights.
To the International Community: Make public statements and attend high-profile court hearings in an effort to support human rights and fight impunity in Guatemala.
NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).