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Guatemala: ‘Coup d’etat’ against the attorney-general?


Main image: banner hung at the entrance of the Consitutional Court after it annulled the genocide verdict against Efraím Ríos Montt. Photo: Andrea Ixchíu

On February 11, the US-based Guatemalan Human Rights Commission(GHRC) and other international organizations criticized the recent ruling that cut short the Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term by seven months, and raised serious concerns about the state of rule of law in Guatemala.

These concerns were reiterated at a press conference in Guatemala City, and GHRC’s official statement can be read (in Spanish) here. The questionable ruling came from the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest court, saying Paz y Paz should leave office in May instead of December 2014. The decision, which contradicts existing law, has been called a “coup d’etat” against one of Guatemala’s most important institutions. Many in Guatemalan civil society, along with international organizations, the US Embassy, and others, were quick to denounce the arbitrary ruling by the Court. Nevertheless, just a few days later, the Guatemalan Congress voted unanimously to implement the ruling and officially appoint the selection committee that will choose the next Attorney General. And while the entire process was wrought with irregularities, responding to political rather than legal considerations, there is now little recourse to challenge the ruling. Claudia Paz y Paz was named Attorney General for a four year term in December 2010, and since taking office has achieved a series of impressive reforms within the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), tackling corruption, organized crime, human rights violations from the past, femicide and human trafficking. In 2013, among other important cases, Paz y Paz oversaw the prosecution of General Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, charged with genocide and war crimes. It was the first time a former head of state was charged with genocide in domestic courts. Rios Montt was found guilty on both counts, but the verdict was overturned just 10 days later in another arbitrary decision by the same Constitutional Court. Despite challenges at every turn, in just three years, the MP has been able to improve their investigative capacity, prosecute high level officials and notorious drug lords, and decrease overall levels impunity by almost 30 percent. While other institutions like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) have contributed greatly to these reforms, much credit goes to Paz y Paz herself for heading up a Prosecutor’s Office that was open to collaboration, focused on getting results, and, above all, committed to upholding the rule of law. Claudia Paz y Paz. Photo: Blanche Petrich, La JornadaFor her work, Claudia Paz y Paz has been recognized and lauded by foreign governments and universities, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. This battle over the Public Prosecutor’s office is a reflection of a larger power struggle unfolding in Guatemala; it is a battle over control of the State. The oligarchy, the business sector and the military have formed a (perhaps tenuous) alliance in order to co-opt institutions, maintain impunity for crimes of the past, and ensure a carte blanche for controversial industries like mining. The break-down of rule of law in the case of the Attorney General is a bad sign of things to come: this year all of Guatemala’s Supreme Court and Appellate court judges leave office, and a new set of judges will be selected through special postulation commissions. As GHRC and partners have criticized, these commissions are not sufficiently transparent, and there is concern that they will respond to special interests rather than criteria based each candidate’s merits. Each of these processes — the selection of a new Attorney General and judges — will have tremendous implications for human rights activists and community leaders, who are already vulnerable to threats and attacks. LAB published an interview with Claudia Paz y Paz in August 2013, which can be read here.

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