Guatemala: International organizations demand end to criminalization of justice officials and human rights defenders

The undersigned organizations express our concern over the increase in criminalization in Guatemala as a strategy to frighten and intimidate those who play significant roles in the fight against impunity in cases of serious human rights violations and corruption.

As a result of our work monitoring the human rights situation in the country, we have documented and reported the improper use of criminal law and other legal mechanisms against human rights defenders, prosecutors, former prosecutors, judges, magistrates, former employees of the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), and defense lawyers, who have been in charge of processes that demonstrate significant advances for justice and the guarantee of human rights.

We note with concern that these practices appear to constitute a pattern in which the Public Prosecutor's Office simply processes criminal and administrative complaints that are manifestly unfounded or improper and keeps them open indefinitely. These complaints are generally preceded or accompanied by intense smear and stigmatization campaigns on social networks and in certain media outlets. The purpose of this is to present the people identified as "enemies", "dangerous", "criminals" or "terrorists" in the eyes of public opinion and to justify the criminal prosecution against them. On occasions, statements have also been made by public officials against the work carried out by these individuals or the institutions they represent.

This pattern of criminalization has been observed with greater frequency in recent years, being used especially against members of the Human Rights Prosecutor's Office and the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity (FECI), against judges of high-risk courts and tribunals that have heard emblematic cases of serious human rights violations linked to the internal armed conflict or those from more recent times; and investigations into large-scale corruption, such as those promoted by the now defunct CICIG, as well as against magistrates of the Constitutional Court (CC). In addition, some of these complaints are driven by the state authorities themselves.

Recently, on 19 May 2021, a former CICIG analyst who has worked on important investigations - such as the La Línea case against former President Otto Pérez Molina - was arrested along with the former head of the Superintendency of Tax Administration (SAT). These individuals remain in pre-trial detention and, given their profile, are in a high-risk situation, having already received threats in prison due to having investigated many of the people currently in pre-trial detention or convicted.

We recall that the IACHR has reiterated that "it is the responsibility of the State to protect justice operators against attacks, acts of intimidation, threats and harassment, investigating those who commit violations against their rights and effectively punishing them. If States do not guarantee the security of their justice operators against all kinds of pressures, including reprisals directly aimed at attacking their person and family, the exercise of jurisdictional function may be seriously affected, frustrating effective access to justice."

These abusive strategies of criminalization are framed in a context of setbacks and obstruction by some sectors opposed to the fight against impunity in the country, which have expressed their aversion towards those who have contributed to outstanding judicial investigations, even participating in the dissemination of messages and images that constitute discrimination due to race, gender or sexual orientation.

We recall that state authorities must ensure that disciplinary and criminal proceedings to which individuals may be subjected for alleged misconduct or crimes are not instrumentalized and used in an abusive manner to the point of becoming tools of harassment to hinder the work of these officials. In this regard, the United Nations Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Magistrates has repeatedly  expressed his concern about the improper use of legal measures that interfere with the work of justice operators and undermine judicial independence in the country.

In light of the above, the undersigned organizations urge the Guatemalan authorities to take action to guarantee the independence of justice officials, the right to due process and to guarantee the right to defend human rights in general. In particular, we consider it essential that the Attorney General take urgent steps to dismiss pending criminal complaints that are unfounded and to generate clear guidelines to prevent the use of the criminal justice system as a tool to harass those who oppose impunity in Guatemala.

Guatemala cannot regress into impunity. The work of human rights defenders and justice officials is essential to sustain and consolidate the progress that has been made in access to justice and the strengthening of the rule of law.

Signatories:

American Jewish World Service

Amnesty International

Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)

Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF)

Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho

Impunity Watch

Latin America Working Group (LAWG)

Plataforma Internacional Contra la Impunidad

Protection International

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)