Guatemalan Congress Delays Vote on Amnesty Bill

On Wednesday, the Guatemalan Congress postponed a scheduled debate of a legislative proposal that would grant general amnesty to perpetrators of grave crimes, including genocide, torture, enforced disappearance, and sexual violence.

The proposal, which was approved in the first of three required congressional debates in January, would result in the immediate release of more than 30 military officials convicted of grave crimes and would cease all ongoing and future investigations and prosecutions into such crimes.

Survivors, families of victims, and human rights defenders protested outside the Congress building Wednesday morning in anticipation of the debate, which was scheduled for 10:00 a.m. Inside the building, families of military officials convicted of grave crimes and their allies were also present to support the legislators who introduced the bill. Retired military officials and members of the Guatemalan Association of Military Veterans (Avemilgua), which has long opposed grave crimes prosecutions, were also in attendance outside the Congress building.

Congress is now expected to take up the legislative proposal in session next week, but a specific date has not yet been announced.

Also on Wednesday morning, several Maya Achí women who are pursuing charges against seven former civil defense patrolmen they accuse of systematically raping them during the conflict filed a protective measure (amparo) before the Constitutional Court. They argue that the proposed legislation violates their right to access justice and are calling for the immediate cessation of debate on the proposed legislation.

Guatemalan and international civil society organizations, as well as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have called on Congress to refrain from approving the legislation. 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.

Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives issued a statement calling on the Guatemalan Congress to refrain from passing the bill:

We are appalled by the Guatemalan Congress’ proposal to grant amnesty for war criminals. During the country’s long civil war, the Guatemalan people, especially the indigenous communities, endured unspeakable horrors. Entire villages were massacred, women were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery, and thousands were disappeared and tortured. To amnesty those responsible for these crimes against humanity now would mean that more than thirty men convicted and currently imprisoned for the gravest of human rights abuses would be set free. It would threaten public safety in Guatemala, reopen old wounds, undermine accountability and rule of law, and set back the country’s transition to democracy. Unfortunately, this proposal is only the latest in a series of efforts by Guatemala’s political elite to reverse the cause of justice while ignoring the country’s obligations under international law. We stand firmly with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in rejecting this proposal. The United States must not turn a blind eye to the victims of these despicable acts and must stand firmly on the side of the Guatemalan people.

The U.S. State Department also expressed its concern in a public statement about the proposed legislation, stating:

The United States is deeply concerned about the proposed amendment to the national reconciliation law in Guatemala. The amendment would grant broad amnesty for perpetrators of serious human rights violations and abuses as well as for convicted criminals. The trials held in Guatemala for crimes related to human rights violations and abuses have restored dignity to the victims’ surviving families, inspired increased trust in state institutions, and served as a positive example to other nations seeking to address a legacy of conflict. The United States remains committed to supporting Guatemalan institutions and the Guatemalan people in their ongoing fight against corruption and impunity.

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.