Smear campaigns and the misuse of the criminal justice system to harass and intimidate human rights defenders continued. Defenders working on land, territorial and environmental issues were at particular risk. People continued to flee the country to escape high levels of inequality and violence. There was a landmark decision by the High-Risk Court A in a case concerning sexual violence and the domestic slavery of 11 Indigenous women during the internal armed conflict. Other high-profile cases against former members of the military continued to suffer setbacks and undue delays. The Congressional Human Rights Commission presented a bill to abolish the death penalty.
In January, the trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt, former President and Commander-in-Chief, and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, former Military Intelligence Director, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity was postponed.1 In March, the trial began before a High-Risk Court and, in May, a Court of Appeals found in favour of the plaintiffs’ request to be tried separately. The Rios Montt trial had to take place behind closed doors in light of the special provisions adopted after it was determined that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. Both trials remained stalled at the end of the year.
Five former members of the military, including Benedicto Lucas García, former head of the High Command of the Guatemalan Army, were charged in relation to the illegal detention, torture and sexual violence committed against Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen, and the enforced disappearance of Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. According to local NGOs, several hearings were suspended and the judiciary imposed restrictions and requirements on the victim’s family and the general public. Members of the Molina Theissen family were subjected to harassment, including online. Women family members faced particular forms of gender-based violence, including harassment and vilification.
In a landmark decision by the High-Risk Court A in February, two former military officials were found guilty of crimes against humanity for the sexual and domestic enslavement of and the sexual violence against 11 Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ women. The crimes took place in the military base located in the community of Sepur Zarco during the internal armed conflict.2
In June, High-Risk Court A ruled that eight former members of the military should face trial on charges related to cases of enforced disappearances and unlawful killings carried out in a military base now known as Creompaz in the northern Alta Verapaz region.3 Relatives of the victims were the targets of online harassment, intimidation inside and outside the courtroom, surveillance and threats.
Civil society organizations continued to push for the approval of Law 3590, which would create a National Commission for the Search for Victims of Enforced Disappearance and Other Forms of Disappearance. The law, which was first presented before Congress in 2006, had not been discussed by the end of 2016.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders faced continuing threats, stigmatization, intimidation and attacks. According to the NGO UDEFEGUA, 14 human rights defenders were killed. The environmental human rights defenders were the group who faced the highest number of attacks. Defenders of the land, territory and the environment faced vilification and attempts to cast them as criminals, both by officials in their public statements and by private individuals, as well as through baseless criminal proceedings.4
The prosecution of human rights defender Daniel Pascual on criminal charges of slander, libel and defamation continued during the year. The charges were linked to public statements he had made in 2013. The judge ignored the defendant’s petition that the case be dealt with under the Constitutional Law on the Expression of Thought and not through ordinary criminal proceedings. On 7 June, the Constitutional Court granted an interim injunction that temporarily suspended proceedings against Daniel Pascual.
In early 2016, a well-known human rights defender received death threats against herself and her children. Threats against the defender coincided with the publication in a newspaper of a paid advertisement on 6 April in which the president of a private company alleged that the purpose of human rights NGOs was to stop economic development, calling them enemies of the country.
On 22 July, High-Risk Court A in Guatemala City acquitted seven defenders of the rights of the Indigenous Maya Q’anjobal People. They had been accused of illegal detention, threats and incitement to commit a crime. By the time they were released, they had spent more than a year in pre-trial detention.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights
For decades, Guatemalans have migrated to the USA via Mexico in an effort to escape the high levels of inequality and violence affecting marginalized groups, including Indigenous Peoples, in the country. Over the past five years, large numbers have been forcibly returned to Guatemala. However, no comprehensive mechanism or protocol had been put in place to address the needs of returnees. According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, between January and August, 11,536 Guatemalans sought asylum in other countries. In September, the Congress approved a new Migration Code to replace the existing outdated migration law.5
In February, the Supreme Court temporarily suspended the operating licence for El Tambor mine in a judgment concerning the failure to carry out prior consultation. The Ministry of Energy and Mines stated that the licence had already been granted and so could not be suspended. As a result, from March onwards the community held sit-ins at the headquarters of the Ministry of Energy and Mines calling for the interim relief granted by the Supreme Court to be enforced. At the end of June, the Supreme Court upheld its previous decision in a definitive manner.
- Guatemala: Shameful decision to postpone Ríos Montt trial a new stain on Guatemala’s justice system (News story, 11 January)
- Guatemala: Conviction of military in sexual abuse case, a historic victory for justice (Press release, 26 February)
- Guatemala: Decision to take Creompaz case to trial an advance for justice (AMR 34/4218/2016)
- Americas: “We are defending the land with our blood”: Defenders of the land, territory and environment in Honduras and Guatemala (AMR 01/4562/2016)
- Americas: Home sweet home? Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador’s role in a deepening refugee crisis (AMR 01/4865/2016)