Guatemala Transitional Justice Update: Court to Consider Rios Montt Amnesty and Interpol Seeks the Arrest of Police Official for 1991 Political Assassination

Highlights

  • An appellate court has now been constituted to issue a ruling on whether Rios Montt can benefit from an amnesty issued by his successor.
  • Interpol issued an international arrest warrant against Lucas Martinez, a former police official suspected of taking part in the 1991 killing of José Mérida, who was assassinated after testifying about state involvement in the 1990 killing of anthropologist Myrna Mack.
  • Guatemala’s Supreme Court announced the creation of another high-risk court to deal with sensitive cases.
  • An executive commission continues analyzing whether the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) should extend beyond September, including through hearing representations by CICIG as well as academic, civil society, and private actors.

Appellate Court Judges Will Decide on Rios Montt Amnesty

On January 29, the appellate court (first chamber) confirmed the three-judge panel that will consider whether Rios Montt can benefit from a 1986 amnesty promulgated by his successor, Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, to avoid a second prosecution for genocide and crimes against humanity. Rios Montt was convicted in 2013 and awaits a second trial after the constitutional court annulled the prior verdict in a divided judgment.

Defendants have made various efforts to use either the 1986 “self-amnesty” issued by Mejia Victores or the 1996 limited amnesty, part of the peace accords, to limit their accountability for crimes committed during Guatemala’s brutal internal armed conflict. Previous legal decisions have largely rejected these amnesty efforts, and they are clearly illegal under international law. However, in October 2013, the constitutional court again reopened the amnesty question, ordering the appellate court to further elaborate their reasons for denying Rios Montt amnesty. Guatemalan government officials, most notably Secretary of Peace Antonio Arenales Forno, have repeatedly declared in domestic and international fora that prior amnesties should prevent prosecutions of former state actors for crimes committed during the armed conflict.

In late December 2014, Rios Montt’s defense attorneys sought to recuse appellate court Judge Marilena Pérez Ordoñez, calling her biased. On February 17 (decision dated January 29), the appellate court rejected this request. Judge Pérez Ordoñez had been assigned after another judge, Judge Aura Marina, excused herself because she previously worked in the state prosecutor’s human rights unit.

More than 60 judges have thus far refused to serve on a court to consider the question of whether Rios Montt should benefit from the 1986 amnesty. It has taken more than a year to form a three-judge panel.

The Foundation Against Terrorism, founded by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, the son of Rios Montt’s interior minister, also presented a criminal complaint against Orlando Lopez, long-time prosecutor and the current head of the human rights prosecution unit responsible for the prosecution of Rios Montt. The Foundation asserted that it would also file a complaint about the country’s attorney general, Thelma Aldana.

Interpol Issues International Arrest Warrant against Former Guatemalan Police Official

On February 18, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant against Lucas Martinez, a former police officer from the criminal investigations homicides unit of the now-defunct Guatemalan National Police. According to Guatemala’s public prosecutor, Martinez participated in state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings during the internal armed conflict and is currently involved in organized crime.

The arrest warrant is sought in connection with the killing of former police investigator José Mérida. Mérida was shot to death on August 5, 1991 in what is believed to be a political assassination to cover up the 1990 political murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack. Only weeks before his killing, Mérida testified that Myrna Mack was killed for political reasons and identified members of state security forces involved in her killing.

Three former police agents are currently awaiting trial for the killing of Mérida and two others who were killed or disappeared in what is believed to be a further effort to cover up Mérida’s assassination.

Creation of a Third High-Risk Court

The Supreme Court of Justice’s President confirmed on February 13 that another high-risk court will be created to handle complex cases. There are currently two high-risk courts, each with a preliminary judge controlling the investigation and a three-judge first instance court. According to Josué Basquiax, the Supreme Court President, the new chamber will start in mid-May, but the judges who will constitute the court have not yet been identified.

The Guatemalan high-risk court system was established in 2009 as specialized courts overseen by “high-risk” judges to handle more sensitive and high-impact cases, including those concerning narco-trafficking, corruption, and transitional justice. This was seen to be necessary because of the greater risk of corruption and security threats in such cases.

The Supreme Court president has asserted that the creation of a third court is necessary due to current burden on the two existing high-risk courts. However, some have raised concerns about the potential for political manipulation of the courts, and whether both existing chambers are currently being assigned cases to their full capacity.

Executive Commission Analyzing Whether CICIG Should Extend Beyond September 2015

The executive commission tasked to advise the president on the future of CICIG – the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala – has announced that it will meet with CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez as part of its evaluation of CICIG’s work. The executive commission will also meet with various other actors, including university representatives, civil society actors, and the private sector. The executive commission will present a report in early April with recommendations to President Otto Perez Molina, who must make a final decision.

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