Over the past two years, the UN human rights office (OHCHR) in Guatemala has documented a more than 70 per cent increase in the number of judicial system workers facing intimidation and criminal charges for their work on corruption or human rights violations, particularly those that occurred in the context of the civil war from 1960 to 1996.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk last week expressed deep concern at repeated intimidation, harassment and reprisals against justice officials and other individuals involved in efforts to combat impunity for human rights violations or for work on anti-corruption cases.
“It is dramatic, given Guatemala’s history, that those fighting for accountability for gross human rights violations are the ones now being persecuted,” said Türk.
“Equally concerning are the attacks against those trying to combat one of the worst viruses to afflict any society: corruption.”
Justice officials and other individuals involved in fighting impunity or in anti-corruption processes have been investigated, detained, charged and even convicted for abuse of power, obstruction of justice and conspiracy. In addition, several others have left the country out of fear for their safety.
On 16 January last, the Chief of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against impunity (FECI – Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad) announced warrants of arrests against three justice officials. One was a staff member of CICIG, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a UN-backed body charged with investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in the country. The Government closed down CICIG in 2019.
Between 2007 and 2019, CICIG assisted the national judicial system in dealing with more than 100 high-profile cases of alleged corruption and other criminal offences involving Government officials, members of Congress and the Courts and several individuals in the private sector.
Upon the disbanding of CICIG, there has been a steady increase in the number of cases of harassment and criminal charges against its former officials and prosecutors.
“These judicial processes and the lack of due process guarantees undermine the rule of law in the entire country,” said the UN Human Rights Chief.
“I call on the authorities to take appropriate measures to strengthen and guarantee the independence of the justice system and provide the necessary protection to justice officials.”
These moves have also been criticised by Transparency International who have demanded Guatemala drop charges against these anti-corruption defenders immediately. Delia Ferreira Rubio, chair of Transparency International, said:
“Guatemala was once a world leader in the fight against corruption – with independent, capable and honest prosecutors that were able to uncover and prosecute grand corruption… Now, the decision… to prosecute those who helped uncover corruption is a devastating turn."
To prevent future violations, Transparency International urges the international community to take key actions to protect anti-corruption efforts. Countries that use legal and financial sanctions against perpetrators of human rights violations and corruption must coordinate more closely to be more effective.