Another Proposal Threatens to Free Convicted War Criminals in Guatemala

It appears that those who seek to guarantee impunity in Guatemala have more than one trick up their sleeves.

In the face of intense international pressure against a proposed general amnesty for war crimes (bill 5377), several members of the congressional leadership refused to put the bill on the legislative agenda this week, against the objections of the bill’s main sponsor, congressman Fernando Linares Beltranena.

However, another initiative that is on Wednesday’s legislative agenda could have a similar effect as an amnesty, not only for war criminals, but for those accused of corruption.

Bills 5466 and 5474, both of which propose changes to the criminal code to address the problem of prison overcrowding, include two concerning provisions. One would allow those who have been in preventive detention for more than one year without a sentence to be released. This means that many former government officials facing charges for corruption who have not yet been convicted, including former president Otto Perez Molina, could be released from prison.

The initiative also mandates that convicts over the age of 70 be released from prison. This could benefit many retired military officials convicted of crimes against humanity, enforced disappearance, sexual violence, and other grave crimes, including former Army Chief of Staff, retired general Benedicto Lucas García, and former head of military intelligence, retired general Manuel Callejas y Callejas, both of whom were convicted last May of crimes against humanity, aggravated sexual assault, and enforced disappearance in the Molina Theissen case.

The two bills have been joined into a single legislative proposal and the third of three required readings is scheduled to take place Wednesday, March 20. If the proposal passes the third reading, it could go to a final vote.

International human rights groups have alerted the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to this legislative proposal. Last week, the court issued a resolution ordering the Congress of Guatemala to shelve bill 5377, which would establish a general amnesty for war crimes and end all future criminal prosecutions into such crimes. Guatemala is obligated to uphold decisions of the Inter-American Court.

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).