Guatemalan justice system at risk

May 22, 2014

“Never forgive, never forget. Yes, there was genocide!” is the message going viral on social media. People are using also the hash tag  #Aquisihubogenocidio (Here there was genocide) to commemorate the genocide trial of Efraín Ríos Montt and as a sign of protest against recent decisions.

May 10th marks one year after the conviction of Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide. This was the first time in history that a former head of state was tried and convicted of genocide in a domestic courtroom. But the verdict only stood for 10 days. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled the sentence on procedural grounds.  

Last year, this decision was a huge setback in the effort of victims, together with civil society organizations, to bring Ríos Montt to justice, put an end to the terrifying years and move the country toward reconciliation.

In the past few days, a series of controversial decisions related to the trial have even jeopardized Guatemala’s justice system and the very rule of law.

First, the Guatemalan Bar Association suspended Judge Yassmin Barrios, who for 18 years had presided over some of the country’s most high-profile cases. Her license to practice law was revoked after a complaint filed by a member of the Ríos Montt defense team regarding her conduct of the case.

Weeks after the suspension, Barrios was awarded an International Woman of Courage Award by first lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. State Department. “By initiating the judicial process against the former dictator, Barrios gave a voice to thousands of Ixil-Mayan victims, provided an important legal precedent for genocide cases worldwide, and demonstrated the importance of an independent judiciary”, says the 2014 Award Winners website about Judge Barrios.

In February this year, Claudia Paz y Paz was forced to step down from her position as attorney general, seven months earlier than due, after the Constitutional Court of Guatemala ruled in favor of a technicality raised by a corporate lawyer.

Claudia Paz y Paz was the first woman to become attorney general of Guatemala. Since 2010, she brought to justice criminals and human rights perpetrators. Her best known case was the genocide trial and conviction of the General Efraín Ríos Montt.

The most recent blow to the Guatemalan justice system was dealt by the Congress itself on May 13, when 87 of the 158 deputies approved a non-binding resolution that denies there was any attempt to commit genocide during the country’s bloody 36-year civil war.
“It is legally impossible… that genocide could have occurred in our country’s territory during the armed conflict,” said the resolution.

With these precedents, justice in Guatemala is facing one of its darkest moments since the civil war ended in 1996. Hivos, together with its partners and other civil society organizations, continues the fight against impunity, seeking to strengthen Guatemala’s justice system through transparency and accountability.