Protests in Guatemala against the current government’s alleged links to a corruption scandal gathered steam this weekend, with protesters calling for the lifting of President Otto Pérez Molina’s immunity. Meanwhile, another tale of immunity is playing out nearby, with former head of state Efraín Rios Montt given a date for the start of his new trial related to crimes committed more than a generation before Pérez Molina took office.
On August 27, a general strike brought Guatemala to a near stand-still. More than 100,000 people gathered at Guatemala City’s main square to demand Pérez Molina’s resignation, while similar protests broke out in cities and towns across the country. That night, during an interview broadcast on national radio, the president repeated his refusal to step down.
But Pérez Molina may only be playing for time, since he is increasingly isolated, with the national prosecutor general, the general comptroller’s office and the attorney general―among others―calling for his resignation. On August 29, after hearing from the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Attorney General’s Office, and after receiving Pérez Molina’s written defense statement, the five-member congressional investigative committee in charge of analyzing the impeachment process against the president rendered its report, in which it unanimously recommended lifting his immunity. The report will be presented to Congress on Monday, August 31 and will need the backing of 105 members of Congress to take effect.
Pérez Molina’s situation has grown more precarious since his former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, was arrested on Friday August 21. On August 25, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, who is overseeing preliminary procedures in the case related to a major kickback scheme called “The Line” (“La Linea”), found that there was enough evidence to believe that Baldetti could have been involved in the alleged customs tax fraud, and decided that she must face trial for corruption charges. Baldetti will stay in prison while CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office conclude the investigation.
Meanwhile, the decision from a high-risk court to order former head of state Rios Montt’s retrial to begin on January 11, 2016 has not provoked any major reaction in Guatemala, even though Rios Montt has been declared unfit for trial. His first trial, in 2013, raised emotional debates and largely divided the population, as the former general still received significant support. The retrial will be a much different affair: due to Rios Montt’s declining health, it will be held behind closed doors, with the defendant represented by his lawyers but not present in the courtroom.
The court ruled, despite Rios Montt’s degenerative and irreversible mental condition, that special procedures can apply when a defendant is not fit to stand trial. These special procedures―which are usually applied when a defendant represents a threat to society―can include holding the trial out of public view.
Rios Montt is charged, together with his former head of military intelligence Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, with genocide and crimes against humanity in relation with the deaths of more than 1,700 Maya Ixiles while he was running the country. Sentenced to 80 years in prison on May 10, 2013, his guilty verdict was overruled 10 days later by the constitutional court, which ordered a new trial. According to the latest decision, Rodriguez Sanchez, acquitted of all charges in 2013, will also be retried in January 2016 under the same conditions as Rios Montt, although his mental capacities to face trial have not been questioned. However, both sides are still preparing their appeal against the high-risk court’s decision. The civil parties also lodged a complaint two years ago before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the constitutional court’s ruling infringed the victims’ right to justice. The case is still pending.
Recusal Action against Judge in Sexual Exploitation Case Is Rejected
On Monday August 24, a high-risk court held a preliminary hearing in the case related to mass sexual violence and slavery at the Sepur Zarco military base during Guatemala’s brutal armed conflict.
In that case, Lieutenant Coronel Esteelmer Reyes, former Sepur Zarco commander, and Heriberto Valdez, a former military commissioner, are being tried for crimes against humanity, including rape and sexual violence against at least 11 Maya Q’eqchi’ indigenous women, and the enforced disappearance of at least nine men. Those crimes were allegedly committed between 1982 and 1988.
Moises Galindo, acting as Reyes’ defense attorney, presented an action to separate Judge Pablo Xitumul, part of the three-judge panel that will hear the trial against both men, from the case. Galindo argued that there is enmity between him and the judge which could affect his impartiality.
Xitumul was part of the court that heard the first trial against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013. During this trial, Galindo assumed Rodriguez Sanchez’s legal defense. He presented various actions against the judges, including Judge Xitumul, aiming at lifting their immunity to be criminally investigated.
Judge Xitumul denied the defense lawyer’s claim and the court unanimously rejected the action. The trial is set to start in April 2016.