Signs that Guatemala’s justice system is under attack

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — In Guatemala, death threats have driven two anti-corruption prosecutors from the country in the past year, and their unit’s leader has a protective order from a regional human rights commission because he is constantly harassed and threatened.

With the departure of the United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission last year that supported a war against some of the country’s most powerful political, business and criminal leaders, Guatemala’s pursuers have become the pursued.

The assault has only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, as corrupt interests take advantage of a population distracted by the health crisis to extend their tentacles back into the justice system.

Manolo Vela, a Guatemalan political analyst and professor of sociology at Mexico’s Iberoamerican University, said organized crime sees an opportunity during the pandemic “to continue their control of the judiciary and take revenge on the judges and prosecutors who had followed the law in their decisions.”

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The time is ripe because social distancing restrictions prevent the public from taking to the streets in protest, he said.

The U.N.-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala left the country in September, after then-President Jimmy Morales decided not to renew its mandate. For 12 years, the commission had worked with local prosecutors to investigate and prosecute criminal networks and some of the country’s most powerful figures, including former President Otto Pérez Molina, who had to resign the presidency and is awaiting trial.

When the commission left, many in Guatemala warned that those who had worked with them could face reprisals.

Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, has had at least 30 legal actions filed against him and constantly receives threats through social media. Many of the lawsuits have been filed by the targets of investigations or their friends and families.

Former prosecutor Andrei González fled Guatemala in August 2019. He had investigated the high-profile illegal campaign financing against former candidate Sandra Torres and her party. He left after receiving death threats.

Luis Mejía, González’s colleague, had investigated a number of politicians on corruption allegations. He received similar threats and left Guatemala early this year.

Both prosecutors are in the United States, which is also where Guatemala’s former Attorney General Thelma Aldana went after leading Guatemala’s anti-corruption fight. Guatemalan authorities are pursuing her for alleged irregular hiring of staff.

Judge Erika Aifán, who has presided over corruption cases against businessmen, officials, judges and lawmakers, is pursued by her own colleagues. Other judges accuse her of overstepping when she ordered the phone company to provide numbers with whom a powerful businessman under investigation for corruption had maintained contact. Some of them were revealed to be other judges and lawmakers. Guatemala’s supreme court has ordered that she be investigated.

Meanwhile, she has had to contend with staff in her own court sabotaging cases, as parts of files disappear and create delays. Aifán is now also living under a protective order from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Diego García Sayán has asked Guatemala’s Congress and government to respect judicial independence.

“I condemn the harassment of Erika Aifán, an independent judge who has contributed to the fight against impunity and corruption in Guatemala,” García said.

International condemnation recently followed Guatemala’s Supreme Court decision to allow a request to strip immunity from members of the Constitutional Court to advance to the Congress.

U.S. lawmakers criticized the move and the American Bar Association said in a statement that the situation “puts in jeopardy not only the authority of individual judges, but the power of the judiciary itself.”

Guatemalan lawmakers are currently selecting judges and the Constitutional Court had instructed the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office to share the list of people suspected in corruption cases so that they would not be considered for seats on the courts.

One candidate, lawyer José Roberto Hernández Guzmán, insisted that the Constitutional Court overreached and that only people convicted of corruption can be deemed ineligible to be judges because it would violate the presumption of innocence. Various organizations have said that the candidate field is full of people suspected of peddling influence.

The anti-corruption prosecutor’s office has documented meetings between those evaluating judge candidates, lawmakers and business magnate Gustavo Alejos, jailed on charges of influence-peddling in the appointment of judges.

Adriana Beltrán, director of the Citizen Security program at WOLA, a Washington-based human rights advocacy organization, said she was concerned over the moves against independent judges. “It is a clear attempt by criminal and corrupt networks to take control of the justice system to obtain impunity and protection for themselves,” she said.

The targets are those “who have promoted greater accountability and defended the rule of law,” Beltrán said. “If they reach their objective, it would have a destabilizing effect in the country and the region,” potentially wiping out advances made against corruption in recent years.

With the justice system under attack from outside forces and from within, President Alejandro Giammattei has remained on the sidelines even though it’s his party that controls Congress.

“We’re outside, it is a problem that has to be resolved in the courts, it’s not our problem,” he said.

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