For Third Time, Amnesty Bill Fails to Reach Floor of Guatemalan Congress

On Wednesday, the Congress of Guatemala failed for the third consecutive time to bring a controversial amnesty bill to the floor for debate. Bill 5377 seeks to modify the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation, which allows for amnesty for political crimes and related crimes, but specifically excludes international crimes including genocide, torture, and other crimes against humanity. If approved, it would free all those convicted of grave crimes committed during the country’s 36-year civil war, as well as those awaiting trial. It would also block all future investigations and prosecutions of grave crimes committed by the military and guerrillas during the internal armed conflict (1960-1996).

On January 17, the Congress approved the bill in the first of three required congressional debates. The bill was scheduled for a second reading on February 13, but it was bumped from the legislative agenda. This was because the Congress was questioning a government minister, which legislative rules state takes precedence over other business.

The bill was scheduled to go to the floor again on February 20. Legislators moved through the first three points on the agenda and were turning to debate Bill 5377. However, opposition legislators abandoned the congressional hall, breaking the quorum and thus preventing the bill from reaching the floor of Congress and forcing an end to the legislative session.

Despite national and international calls to abandon the legislative proposal, the bill’s proponents secured its place on the legislative agenda again for Wednesday, February 27.

On Wednesday, the congressional session convened in the early afternoon, and the amnesty bill was the seventh item on the agenda. Members first engaged in a lengthy debate on funding for a program to combat infant malnutrition, and before moving on to the next point on the agenda, a Member of Congress asked for a quorum call. There was no longer a quorum present, which forced the session to end. The bill thus failed for a third time to reach the floor of Congress.

Rising Opposition to the Amnesty Bill

Victims of the internal armed conflict, domestic and international human rights organizations, as well as the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, members of the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Department of State, have criticized the amnesty bill and called on legislators to refrain from passing it into law. They say the proposed legislation violates the Guatemalan Constitution and international law, which establishes that international crimes cannot be amnestied, are not subject to statutes of limitations, or other mechanisms that seek impunity for perpetrators.

Tension is rising over the proposed legislation and the possibility that convicted criminals could walk free and that future investigations in hundreds of other cases would be blocked. On Monday, February 25, survivors and families of victims of the internal armed conflict gathered across the country to commemorate International Day of the Dignification of Victims. They demanded that Congress shelve Bill 5377, which they say violates their rights to truth and justice.

The following day, retired soldiers and former members of the civil defense patrols (PACs) affiliated with the Guatemalan Association of Military Veterans (Avemilgua) protested in front of the Congress, demanding 85,000 quetzales (US$11,000) each as a form of reparation for their “service to the nation.” Avemilgua, which was founded in 1995 in opposition to the peace negotiations, organized a similar protest in January, demanding compensation for having “protected the Guatemalan State” during the internal armed conflict.

A new date for the second reading of the amnesty bill has not been proposed. However, it is likely to come up again next week, despite the questions raised about the legality of the bill.

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.