Constitutional Court Orders Congress to Suspend Consideration of Amnesty Law Proposal

On July 18, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court granted a provisional injunction to victims of human rights violations, who sought to block the approval of a blanket amnesty law. The law seeks the immediate release of former military officials convicted of human rights violations and the extinction of future prosecutorial efforts in such cases by Congress.

The court ordered the immediate suspension of consideration of Legislative Proposal 5377. As International Justice Monitor has reported, bill 5377 seeks to modify the Law of National Reconciliation of 1996, which grants amnesty for political crimes committing during the course of Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-1996) but explicitly excludes from the amnesty provision international crimes, including genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity.

Magistrates Boanerge Mejía, Gloria Porras, and José Mata voted to grant the provisional injunction. Two magistrates, Neftaly Aldana and Dina Ochoa, filed dissenting votes.

The bill was introduced in 2017 by legislator Fernando Linares Beltranena but only gained steam in beginning of this year, in the context of a broad-based effort by the government of Jimmy Morales to shut down all efforts to investigate serious crimes, ranging from state corruption to past human rights violations.

The controversial bill was approved in two of three required readings, but legislators opposing the proposed legislation walked out on several different occasions, preventing a quorum, so that the bill could not be approved in a third reading. On March 12, 2019, the Inter-American Court ordered the State of Guatemala to cease discussion, and the immediate shelving, of bill 5377. While Congress has since not revived discussion of the questioned bill, it has not shelved it. Human rights activists fear that the lame-duck Congress will seek to approve the bill after second-round presidential elections scheduled for August 11, 2019.

In response to the Constitutional Court’s ruling, Congressman Linares Beltranena, a legislator who has been linked to senior military officials alleged to be involved in the “Cofradía,” or “The Brotherhood,” an organized crime network, said, “We do not tell them how to deliver their rulings, but they are telling us how to legislate, because the three magistrates have a clear phobia of the military.”

The injunction was filed in February of this year by Paulina Ixpatá Alvarado de Osorio, Pedrina López de Paz de López, and Sergio Fernando Escobar, who are victims of the armed conflict, with the support of the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Attorney General’s Office, the Human Rights Commission of the Guatemalan Congress, and several human rights organizations. They argued that the proposed bill seeks to benefit a small number of individuals and called on the court to ensure that Guatemala upholds its international human rights obligations, including access to justice for the victims of grave human rights violations. Victims who brought claims against those accused of such abuses would also be put at undue risk, they claimed.

Two of the individuals filing the injunction are Maya Achí women who are survivors of sexual violence committed by members of the Guatemalan army and former members of the civil defense patrols (PACs). As IJ Monitor recently reported, the presiding pre-trial judge in the case, Claudette Domínguez, dismissed the charges against the six defendants in the case, claiming that the plaintiffs had not proven that they were members of the PACs, and ignoring the fact that the women had identified the six men as the material perpetrators of the sexual violence they had suffered. Judge Domínguez ordered the release of the six men within a few days of the ruling.

Judge Domínguez has come under intense scrutiny for several rulings benefiting retired senior military officials and other powerful elites accused of human rights violations, murder, and corruption. On July 11, the Attorney General’s Office filed impeachment proceedings against the judge, alleging her lack of impartiality constitutes a breach of legal duty. Plaintiffs in at least three grave crimes cases (Maya Achí sexual violence case, CREOMPAZ mass enforced disappearance case, Mendoza García genocide case) have also sought to recuse Judge Domínguez.

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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