In Guatemala there are growing reports of judges being forcibly relocated to remote locations in what has been seen by the affected judges and outside observers as unjustified retaliation against them. There are other reports of reprisal against judges and court officers – from disciplinary actions to dismissals – following the 2014 judicial appointment process in which scores of judges stood publicly against evidence of corruption and irregularities. Yesterday, two judges filed a constitutional challenge to what they describe as a retaliatory action.
In October 2014, Judge Claudia Escobar resigned and turned over an audiotape of Guatemalan legislator Gudy Rivera seeking her support in a case implicating the vice president in exchange for the legislator’s support in the nomination process. More than 50 judges as well as the country’s human rights ombudsman stood alongside Judge Escobar and joined her call for an annulment of the appointments and the initiation of a new process. Judge Escobar, Judge Patricia Gámez, and Judge Maria Cristina Fernández testified before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights regarding the irregularities.
In response, the constitutional court temporarily suspended all of the judicial nominations, but in a divided judgment on November 20, endorsed the results.
Now, some of the judges who contested the appointments are facing their own challenges.
Judge Gámez, who had testified before the Inter-American Commission, was recently informed that she had been transferred to a jurisdiction nearly 250 kilometers from the capital where she lives. Judge Gámez has been a judge for more than 15 years, working in the criminal trial court of Sacatepéquez outside the capital and had previously served as president of the judges association. The Supreme Court’s resolution, dated February 11, announced Judge Gámez’ “immediate” move to Huehuetenango and contained no justification for the move. Judge Gámez stated that she can see “no other reason” other than her prior support for Judge Escobar’s call for a new judicial selection process in the face of irregularities.
On March 2, Judge Jennie Molina received a similar notification. Judge Molina has been a family court judge for the past 11 years in Santa Rosa, 75 kilometers outside of the capital. Early this week, the Supreme Court informed her that she would be immediately transferred to Péten, nearly 600 kilometers away, providing no justification for the move. Judge Molina insisted that she received a near-perfect recent evaluation, has never faced any disciplinary actions, and also stood with Judge Escobar to challenge corruption in the nominating commission process.
According to a Thursday statement by Judge Escobar, now living outside of Guatemala, at least 70 court officials have denounced retaliatory actions taking against them—including suspensions, transfers to distant locations, and unjustified disciplinary actions or dismissals.
“Since my resignation, a group of 70 judges and lawyers publicly demonstrated their rejection of acts in violation of judicial independence…They are now being subjected to harassment and persecution,” Judge Escobar affirmed. She appealed to her judicial colleagues to “not let [themselves] be intimidated,” and sought the intervention of the human rights ombudsman.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Supreme Court President Josué Baquiax asserted that the changes were unanimous decisions of the 13 judges of the Supreme Court and did not constitute retaliation. He justified the transfers as within the authority of the court.
Without identifying any specific complaints, Judge Baquiax also justified the transfers by saying that the supreme court “would not tolerate corruption and failure to comply with work obligations.” Judge Baquiax asserted that there had been a prior hearing in the case of all transfers. Judges Gámaz and Molina denied that they had been notified of any complaints about their work. Meanwhile, other judges currently under investigation by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for corruption – including Judges Jisela Reinoso and Erick Santiago – have not faced the threat of transfer.
Judges Gámez and Molina filed a constitutional challenge before the constitutional court yesterday. The Guatemalan constitution and laws provide that judges are appointed for five year terms and can be transferred out of necessity based on a justified decision following a hearing. (Constitution, Arts. 208-210; Law of Judicial Career, Art. 26.)
At least two other judges reported actions against them that they consider as reprisal. Judge Erica Aifan, a criminal judge, was moved from Jutiapa to Cuilapa, in Santa Rosa, more than an hour away. Judge Marco Antonio Villeda, who also supported Judge Escobar, was denied the right to travel to Panama to participate in a regional conference.
The Myrna Mack Foundation has also identified other court officers who were sanctioned without justification in recent months. According to the Mack Foundation, judicial authorities dismissed Tatiana Morales, a court officer who mounted a constitutional challenge against the 2014 judicial appointment process; as well as, among others, the Secretary of the Council of Judicial Service and Rosalba Corzantes, the Director of Court Supervision.
Guatemalan civil society organizations expressed concern. Carmen Aída Ibarra from the Justice Movement (Movimiento Pro Justicia) called the actions “arbitrary and discretionary,” with ramifications for the relationship among judges and also the capacity of the judges to adequately serve the population. The Myrna Mack Foundation described the unjustified relocation of judges as concerning for judicial independence and a violation of domestic and international law.
This issue is expected to be presented before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which will hold its next session in Washington, D.C. from March 16 to 20.