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July-August 2010
Vol. 35, No. 4


Guatemala: Is impunity beginning to end?

After decades of gathering dust in the archives of the Guatemalan judicial system, 10 human rights cases finally are beginning to move forward. Yet entrenched military and political powers are working to stall the lawsuits in order to avoid prosecution. Guatemalans and those interested in human rights are following the cases closely; if thoroughly prosecuted, they will be a significant breakthrough toward ending impunity in the country.

One of the principal lawsuits is that of Efraín Bámaca Velásquez (also known as Everardo), a former rebel leader who was arrested by the Guatemalan military in March 1992. Officials told his wife, human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury, that he had been killed that day, but months later, escaped prisoners reported seeing Bámaca being tortured by the military in clandestine prisons. Harbury began a campaign to find the truth that continues to this day. In 1993, she brought the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and carried out hunger strikes in Guatemala and the U.S. to pressure officials to release more information about her husband. Her efforts paid off in 1994 when the U.S. released documents showing that, days after his arrest, the CIA knew that Bámaca had not been killed but was in the control of the Guatemalan military. If they had released that information he and others might be alive today.

Bámaca’s case went to a full trial at the IACHR in Costa Rica in 1998. A landmark unanimous decision was issued in 2000 holding the government responsible for Everardo’s disappearance and torture. The court ordered the government to begin proper criminal investigations and proceedings, an order that was ignored for many years.

In 2007 and 2009, the IACHR repeated its criticism of the Guatemalan government for its lack of action on this and a number of other suits and called for them to move forward. Then-Attorney General Dr. José Amílcar Velásquez Zárate took the rulings seriously and, with financial assistance from the Dutch embassy, began to process the cases.

As the legal actions developed, the first roadblock encountered was that a military court had met secretly on many of the cases and had declared the defendants innocent. So they now claimed that they were being tried twice for the same crime. Surprisingly, the Guatemalan Supreme Court quickly declared those military trials to be invalid and that the IACHR decision must be followed. In the Bámaca case, his wife has been named querellante adhesiva (consulting plaintiff), which gives her rights almost equal to a prosecutor.
Of course, these remarkable advances are not occurring without negative reaction. A prosecuting attorney associated with the first case to result in an arrest was killed with a point blank shot to the head. (In early July, a court officer on the same case was murdered.) The military has also tried to discredit Harbury and declare her marriage to Bámaca illegitimate. Those involved in prosecuting these cases know the long history of assassinations of human rights defenders, but they continue on under a cloud of intimidation.

In May, the president appointed a new attorney general, chosen from a list of candidates provided by a panel of jurists. Many assumed that Zarate would be selected, but neither he nor any of his assistants were included in the list of six nominees. The president named Conrado Reyes, a man with known connections to right wing organizations, who immediately fired all of the human rights oriented members of the prosecutorial staff. In response to Reyes’ appointment and the firings, Carlos Castresana, the head of CICIG (the UN-backed anti-impunity commission that is helping in most of these cases) quit, calling for Reyes’ removal in his resignation speech. Four days later, Reyes was removed and an interim attorney general has been appointed who has rehired some of the fired staff.

Clearly those who face prosecution are willing to do whatever is necessary to stall the proceedings. But they may also indicate their waning influence as the cases continue to move forward.

Faith in action:

This important time in Guatemalan history requires international support. Now is a time when letters would be effective in helping ensure that these cases are completed. Go to the website of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA for details about sending a letter to Guatemalan authorities and to sign their petition.

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