Guatemala One Step Closer to Imposing General Amnesty for War Crimes

The amnesty bill that seeks to revise the National Reconciliation Law passed in the wake of the 1996 peace accords is closer to becoming a reality. On Wednesday, the second of three required readings of the bill took place in the Guatemalan Congress, prompting heated debate by those in favor of and those against the proposed legislation.

As International Justice Monitor has previously noted, if the bill becomes law, it would free all those convicted of or awaiting trial for human rights violations committed during the war and block all future investigations into wartime crimes.

The three previous attempts to schedule the second debate failed. The last two were frustrated when opposition legislators walked out of the congress hall, breaking quorum and preventing the bill from moving to the floor.

The third and final debate and final vote is expected next week.

A Heated Debate Over a Controversial Bill

Congressman Estuardo Galdámez, the presidential candidate for the official National Convergence Front (FCN-Nación), initiated the second reading. Galdámez, a former Kaibil official of the Guatemala Army, has been an avid supporter of the amnesty proposal. Previously, Galdámez was affiliated with the Patriot Party of former president Otto Pérez Molina, who has since been jailed on corruption charges.

Congresswoman Nineth Montenegro of Encuentro por Guatemala questioned the amnesty bill, saying it violated the Guatemalan Constitution as well as the country’s international obligations. Guatemala is signatory to international treaties that prohibit amnesties, statutes of limitations, and other limiting factors designed to grant impunity to those responsible for crimes against humanity and other international crimes.

Congressman Oliverio García-Rodas, who is an independent, noted that the bill contains basic errors and filed a motion to return it to the Committee on Legislative and Constitutional Matters to be redrafted. For example, the bill includes “cielitos” instead of “delitos” (crimes). This motion failed to obtain the needed votes to be approved.

Congressman Walter Felix of the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity MAIZ party, urged his peers to vote against the bill, which he deemed unconstitutional. He said his party would interpose legal action if the Congress votes to approve the bill into law.

Congressman Manuel Conde Orellana of the National Advancement Party (PAN) argued that the minor errors noted by García-Rodas could be corrected in the third reading, in which legislators review all legislative proposals article by article. Fernando Linares Beltranena, who introduced the amnesty bill in 2017, is also a member of PAN.

Conde Orellana, who was an expert witness for the defense in the genocide trial against former military intelligence chief Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, stated that he believed the bill should be approved, suggesting it would help Guatemala “evolve” to deal more fairly with crimes of the past. He also said that criminal trials in these cases often last years, which negatively affect those accused, some of whom are octogenarians.

In a final attempt to block the second reading of the bill, Congressman García-Rodas presented a motion to send the amnesty bill to the Constitutional Court for an opinion about its constitutionality. However, this also failed to obtain the required votes. The Constitutional Court has established jurisprudence upholding the 1996 National Reconciliation Law, which it found is in accordance with the Guatemalan Constitution and international law.

With the failure of these motions challenging the amnesty bill to be approved, the second reading concluded, paving the way for it to advance to the third and final reading before it can become law.

“You are Ungrateful Towards the Army”

As the discussion concluded, Congressman Galdámez rebuked the opposition legislators who questioned the amnesty bill, saying: “You are ungrateful towards the Army, which defended Guatemala.”

The parliamentarians who support the bill say it is a necessary step to promoting reconciliation in Guatemala. They argue that trials against military officials are biased and have become a tool to political persecution of the military. They also say that they have polarized the country.

National and international groups have made repeated calls on the Guatemalan Congress to refrain from approving the amnesty bill, which they maintain violates the rights of victims and is contrary to Guatemalan and international law.

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.