As Guatemala’s constitutional crisis grinds on, survivors and families of victims are concerned that the Guatemalan Congress may pass legislation that would effectively establish a blanket amnesty for military officials accused of international crimes related to the internal armed conflict, in which an estimated 200,000 lives were lost.
Between 2008 and 2018, Guatemalan courts have handed down 16 verdicts in grave crimes cases and have convicted 30 former military officials, military commissioners, and former civil defense patrol members of a litany of grave crimes, including torture, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, aggravated sexual violence, and sexual and domestic slavery.
Under the terms of the proposed legislation, all of those convicted would go free within 24 hours of the law’s promulgation. Several others who are in prison awaiting trial would also be freed. One former guerrilla leader has been convicted of human rights crimes and would also presumably be freed if the legislation were to be adopted.
On January 17, amidst cheers from former military officials and families of several officials who have been convicted in grave crimes cases, Congress voted to bring the legislation to a floor vote, which is expected as early as this week.
Victims of the conflict have expressed their opposition to the proposed legislation, as have national and international organizations, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Congress Advances a Proposed Full-Stop-Style Amnesty Law
Bill 5377, initially introduced in November 2017 by Congressman Fernando Linares Beltranena, seeks to alter the Law of National Reconciliation, which the Congress passed in December 1996 in the context of the UN-brokered peace accords. That law provides amnesty for political crimes, but explicitly excludes the possibility of amnesty for international crimes including genocide, torture, and other crimes against humanity.
The reform proposal introduced by Linares Beltranena, and signed by 12 other members, seeks to eliminate this exclusion based on the argument that “to achieve true peace and reconciliation there must be a general amnesty for all the actors of the armed conflict.” The law would establish the total extinction of criminal responsibility in cases related to the internal armed conflict, as well as the application of the principle of non-retroactivity of the law in any of these cases.
As IJ Monitor has reported previously, the bill claims that the imbalance in prosecutions against military officials versus former guerrillas is proof that the prosecution of grave crimes cases constitutes “a form of judicial harassment of only one of the actors in the conflict, the military.” The Commission for Historical Clarification found that the government was responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict, while guerrilla forces were responsible for three percent, with the remaining violations committed by other groups or unknown actors. The bill also accuses “human rights activists” of seeking to extend the crime of genocide to “ideologies and political militancy.”
Beltranena has been a vocal opponent of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and anti-corruption efforts. Beltranena is reported to have close links to retired senior military officials who were active during the counterinsurgency years. According to El Periódico, Beltranena has represented Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo, a former military intelligence official who is closely tied to Manuel Callejas y Callejas, the alleged founder of the Cofradía (Brotherhood) organized crime network and one of four military officials who was convicted last year in the Molina Theissen grave crimes case.
Other legislators supporting the bill are close allies of Morales and Otto Pérez Molina, the former president who in 2015 was forced out of office and is currently on trial for corruption, and some face charges of corruption themselves. (See IJ Monitor’s report, Legislator Proposes Blanket Amnesty for Grave Human Rights Violations in Guatemala.)
After the bill was introduced, it was sent for review in January 2018 to two committees, the Commission on Legislation and Constitutional Affairs and the Human Rights Commission. Each was charged with preparing a report recommending approval or rejection.
In June 2018 the Commission on Legislation and Constitutional Affairs, presided over by Beltranena, recommended the law’s approval. The Human Rights Commission, however, recommended rejecting the bill, stating that it violated international law and would represent a grave setback for victims of the conflict. The proposed legislation did not go up for a vote until now. The country teeters on the brink of a constitutional breakdown as the Executive refuses to uphold a Constitutional Court ruling blocking the president’s decision to shut down the CICIG and the Supreme Court has ruled to advance vote impeachment proceedings against Constitutional Court magistrates.
For a bill to be approved in Guatemala, it must pass through three legislative sessions. The bill is discussed in the first two sessions, and in the third session amendments can be introduced, and a final vote is taken. If a simple majority approves the bill, it goes to the Executive for approval and promulgation.
Reactions to the Proposed Legislation
As members of Congress debated the two committee reports last Thursday, several retired military officials and family members of military officials convicted of grave human rights violations applauded and cheered energetically from the gallery.
Among them was Nana Winters, the wife of Benedicto Lucas García, who was convicted last May in the Molina Theissen case of crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual violence and enforced disappearance and sentenced to 58 years in prison. If the proposed reform is adopted, Lucas García would be freed from prison, and the charges against him in the CREOMPAZ enforced disappearance case would no longer be pursued in court.
Before the session began, Winters blessed Linares Beltranena, the bill’s sponsor.
National and international human rights groups immediately denounced the proposed legislation. Shortly after the vote on January 17, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala called on Congress to reject the proposed legislation, saying, “Adopting Bill 5377 would be a serious and grave step backwards in the struggle against impunity for grave human rights violations.”
Local human rights groups and victims of the armed conflict also rejected the proposed legislation. A statement put out by several civil society organizations said, “the application of amnesty provisions as mandated by the proposed legislation would seriously obstruct the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of all those responsible of [grave] crimes.”
“A blanket amnesty that seeks to impose a policy of ‘forgive and forget’ towards these painful crimes is unjust and revictimizing and is prohibited by international law. It offends not only our family, but all of the victims, the people of Guatemala, and all of humanity. It violates Guatemala’s obligations at the national and international levels, and it distorts the objective of the National Reconciliation Law, which was to help reconstruct the social fabric.”
Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.