On Friday, an appeals court unanimously rejected a travel ban which had been imposed on the lead prosecutor in the 2013 genocide trial of former Guatemalan head of state Efraín Ríos Montt.
Prosecutor Orlando Lopez had not been indicted and did not face any criminal charges, yet Judge Darwin Porras had imposed a travel ban (arraigo) against him on April 13. Such actions are taken to prevent the risk of flight from the country during an investigation, though Judge Porras had not sought any evidence that the prosecutor was a flight risk.
The flight ban had been in response to a February 22 criminal complaint by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, son of former Rios Montt’s interior minister and current president of the Guatemalan Foundation Against Terrorism. Mendez Ruiz accused Lopez of various crimes related to public statements Lopez made in an event commemorating the one year anniversary of the historic genocide verdict.
Neither Orlando Lopez, who is currently the head of the public prosecutor’s unit overseeing cases related to human rights violations, nor the prosecutor from the internal affairs unit, were allowed to participate to the April 13 hearing. Consequently, both challenged their exclusion in a process watched for its significance on prosecutorial independence in Guatemala.
The appellate court issued its decision the day after a hearing. The court found that the exclusion of the prosecutors from the hearing was a due process violation, confirming that the Public Ministry is solely responsible for controlling prosecutions and that civil parties cannot act unilaterally. Interim measures—like the travel ban issued by the lower court—must be supported by the prosecutor’s office in order to be valid. Further, the court ruled that a criminal investigation can only be opened if the facts in a complaint constitute crimes, which was not done in this case.
The lower court must act on this decision within 15 days.
Meanwhile, corruption scandals continue to affect President Otto Pérez Molina’s government. Last week, following a joint investigation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Public Ministry, Guatemalan authorities arrested 17 people allegedly connected to corrupt criminal structures within the national civil police and the Congress. CICIG and the Public Ministry also appealed to the Supreme Court to lift immunity from legislator Pedro Muadi, president of the Guatemalan Congress in 2013 and 2014, in connection with a corruption investigation. Muadi is campaigning for re-election as a congressman in the closely-watched September 6 elections.