Yesterday, a Guatemalan appeals court considered whether the lead prosecutor in Guatemala’s historic genocide trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt could be reprimanded for statements he made out of court.
Prosecutor Orlando López has not been indicted, and he does not face any criminal charges. However, in an April 13 hearing, a judge imposed a travel ban for the duration of a criminal investigation into statements López made at a public event. The case is being watched as an important test of prosecutorial and judicial independence in Guatemala.
Neither López nor a prosecutor from the Public Ministry’s Internal Affairs Unit were allowed to participate in the April 13 hearing. Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, son of Rios Montt’s former interior minister and president of Guatemala’s Foundation Against Terrorism, launched the criminal complaint against López. Judge Darwin Porras only permitted Méndez Ruíz and his attorney to participate in the April 13 hearing.
Yesterday López argued that the travel ban should be annulled because his exclusion from the April 13 hearing violated his right to defend himself. He stated that his public speech was not criminal, and that he is not a flight risk. He thus affirmed that a travel ban is inappropriate regardless of the outcome of the investigation. López acknowledged that his work as a prosecutor caused discomfort to those facing charges and regretted that, in Guatemala, seeking justice was sometimes itself criminalized.
López is a career prosecutor who has served in the human rights prosecution unit for the past four years and currently heads the unit.
The Public Ministry’s Internal Affairs Unit – represented by Marlón Pacheco Rodríguez – decried the institution’s exclusion from the hearing as a violation of its constitutional role. The judge who imposed the travel ban had not permitted the Public Ministry to provide information that would allow an accurate reading of López’ flight risk or the status of the investigation. Pacheco described the institution’s exclusion from the hearing as a threat to the rule of law. The Public Ministry’s constitutional affairs unit joined the appeal.
Attorney Falla Ovalle, representing the Foundation Against Terrorism, which had lodged the initial challenge against López, argued that the April 13 one-sided hearing and travel ban were legal.
Mendez Ruiz, president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, called for the investigation of López’ bank accounts, suggesting (without evidence) that his alleged “judicial lynching” of the military was tainted by corruption. Mendez Ruiz also called international observers present in the courtroom, including from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), “judicial tourists” aiming to pressure the judges.
The Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), which represented the victims in the genocide case, intervened in the case, describing the hearing in which the prosecutor’s office was denied the right to participate, or even be present, as a violation of due process and of López’ right to defend himself. The Human Rights Ombudsman also intervened, in writing, to support the challenge of the parties’ exclusion to the hearing. International organization Due Process of Law Foundation also presented an amicus curiae in the case.
The three-judge appeals court has three days to issue a decision.
Meanwhile, yet another challenge to the objectivity of judges threatens to further delay a retrial of Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. On Wednesday, CALDH asked one of the three judges named to rehear the case on July 23 — Judge Jaime Delmar Gonzalez — to excuse himself due to an alleged friendship with Francisco García Gudiel, one of Rios Montt’s defense attorneys. As Rios Montt’s defense attorneys did not attend the hearing, the court will set another hearing to decide the issue.
On May 10, 2013, Rios Montt was convicted of genocide crimes and crimes against humanity in relation with the death of 1,771 indigenous Mayans during Guatemala’s bloody civil war. Ten days later, the constitutional court overruled the verdict on technicalities and ordered a new trial which has been mired in delays and obstacles.