Will Guatemala Protect Human Rights Advocates from Dubious Criminal Complaints?

There are many questions about the future of domestic trials for grave crimes committed during Guatemala’s 36-year long civil war.  Will incoming President Jimmy Morales, despite his association with former military commanders―including those who founded his party―attempt to discourage future trials?  Will Attorney General Thelma Aldana initiate any new prosecutions, or just continue with cases initiated by her predecessor, Claudia Paz y Paz?  Adding to these uncertainties is the question of whether the Guatemalan state will protect the prosecutors, expert witnesses, and human rights defenders working on these cases against intimidation.

In 2015, Ricardo Mendez-Ruiz, the son of a wartime interior minister and current president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, filed criminal complaints against Orlando Lopez in relation to public remarks he made about the 2013 trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.  Lopez served as the lead prosecutor in the case against Rios Montt and his co-accused, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, and currently heads the Office of the Attorney General’s human rights unit.  That unit is currently investigating mass graves found on the Coban army base where Mendez-Ruiz’s father, Ricardo Mendez-Ruiz Rohrmoser, served as commander during the conflict, prior to taking up his position as Rios Montt’s interior minister.

Mendez-Ruiz, who writes columns for a national newspaper in which he often compares human rights defenders, prosecutors, and attorneys to communists and terrorists, has also lodged criminal complaints against judges and expert witnesses involved in grave crimes cases related to the conflict.  The complaints, filed more than six months ago, still hang over the heads of Lopez and others while they seek to play their professional roles in ongoing proceedings.

In October, human rights activists complained to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights about spurious legal attacks on those involved in trying to move forward with conflict-related cases.  They asked the commission to urge the Guatemalan state to create a prompt and efficient mechanism for hearing complaints against judicial actors and experts in order to avoid misuse of the justice system to criminalize their work.  There has not yet been a response from the commission.  Guatemalan state institutions have not responded to the complaint, and Attorney General Aldana has been silent on the issue.

Others involved in supporting grave crimes cases, such as the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), have received threats of violence.  The FAFG has worked to exhume and identify the remains of conflict victims, and has been active across Guatemala, including at the Coban site.  The Inter-American Commission has granted requests for provisional measures on protection in such instances, and Guatemala has implemented these.

A significant new grave crimes case, known as Sepur Zarco, will come to trial on February 1, 2016.  A retrial of Rios Montt and/or Rodriguez Sanchez may begin in 2016, and other cases are under investigation within the Attorney General’s Office. As those officials, human rights activists, and experts involved in the cases press forward, it remains to be seen whether the Inter-American Commission will issue provisional measures that quickly resolve legal accusations against them. And if the commission acts, it remains to be seen whether the new government that takes office on January 14 will follow suit.