Guatemala’s Future Uncertain with Amnesty Bill Still Not Abandoned

Intense domestic and international pressure has seemingly dissuaded legislators from approving an amnesty bill that would free convicted war criminals and those awaiting trial for such crimes. However, the bill has not been permanently shelved, so it could be put back on the legislative agenda at any time for consideration in the future.

Bill 5377 was up for the third of three required readings necessary before going to a final vote on March 13. However, on March 12, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Guatemala to permanently table the bill, which it said violates Guatemala’s international obligations in the Molina Theissen and other grave crimes cases. Citizen protests, along with an avalanche of statements from international organizations and foreign governments critical of the amnesty bill, contributed to the reprieve in passing this regressive legislation.

As a result, last week, the congressional leadership refused to schedule a third reading of bill 5377.

They did, however, include a joint bill that would free all those over 70 accused of corruption and war crimes who have been in preventive detention for more than one year but who have not been sentenced. The joint bill, which unites initiatives 5464 and 5474, putatively addresses the problem of prison overcrowding by restricting the use of preventive detention. The joint bill, which has been through two of three required readings, has been dormant since 2018.

If approved, dozens of former government officials accused of corruption, including former president Otto Pérez Molina, as well as several retired senior military officials who face war crimes charges, would go free, though the proceedings against them would continue. In particular, this would free military officials accused in the CREOMPAZ case, which is the largest enforced disappearance case in Latin American history.

The joint bill on preventive detention was included in the past two legislative sessions, March 20 and 27, but in neither case did it come up for a third reading. Before yesterday’s session, the joint bill was moved down further down on the legislative agenda, which suggests that it may lack the support needed for the third and final reading.

Yesterday’s session lasted for several hours, with lengthy debates over a loan for San Carlos University and an economic recovery bill to help small and medium coffee farmers. The session broke at 7:30 p.m. without discussion of the joint bill. “I don’t think this bill has the support to be approved,” said Miguel Urbina, a Guatemalan lawyer and expert on constitutional law. “I think it’s being used as a distraction.”

There is also a great deal of uncertainty in Guatemala about the upcoming general elections, scheduled for June 14, 2019. Remarkably, the three presidential front-runners are women: Thelma Aldana, Zury Ríos, and Sandra Torres.

On March 19, former Attorney General Thelma Aldana registered as a presidential candidate for Semilla. However, the same day news filtered out that a court had issued a warrant for her arrest on corruption charges. Aldana says the charges are spurious and designed to prevent her from running for president. Aldana is well liked by many Guatemalans for her anti-corruption work, but many elites fear that an Aldana presidency would harm their interests. As of this writing, her status as a candidate remains uncertain.

The candidacy of Zury Ríos, the daughter of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, is also unclear. She is trying to fend off attempts to exclude her candidacy based on a constitutional provision that prohibits direct family members of ex dictators from running for the presidency.

Sandra Torres, of the National Unity of Hope (UNE), is running for president for the third time, having come in second to Jimmy Morales in the 2015 elections. She faced a potential impediment to her candidacy when prosecutors sought her impeachment on illegal campaign contributions, but the Supreme Court of Justice dismissed those charges, clearing her way to compete in the upcoming elections.

All 158 congressional seats are also up for election. Magistrates for the Supreme Court of Justice and the appellate courts will be selected in June as well. A commission comprised of law school deans, representatives of the Bar Association, and judicial authorities reviews the candidates and selects a list of finalists; Congress selects 13 Supreme Court magistrates and 90 appellate court magistrates from that list.

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.

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