In Defiance of Court Rulings, Guatemalan Congressional Leaders Push Amnesty Bill

Despite national and international court rulings ordering cessation of debate and permanent withdrawal of Guatemala’s bill 5377, a blanket amnesty law designed to shield perpetrators of grave human rights violations from prosecution, a small group of congressional representatives are leading a new effort to pass it into law. If approved, the legislation would result in the immediate release of all those who have been convicted of, or who are awaiting trial for, human rights violations. It would also prevent the Attorney General’s Office from continuing its investigations into these crimes.

While these efforts to approve the amnesty bill have not yet gained traction, there are four months before the current lame-duck Congress is replaced by the newly elected Congress on January 14, 2020. Of the 158 current members of Congress, 106 were either not reelected or did not seek reelection. They may feel that they have little to lose by voting in favor of an amnesty law.

Congressman Linares Beltranena Pushes Amnesty Bill

On August 21, Congressman Fernando Linares Beltranena attempted to schedule a third reading of bill 5377. It seeks to reform the National Reconciliation Law of 1996, which allows for amnesty for political crimes but specifically excludes international crimes including genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity. Bill 5377, which would eliminate the exclusion, gained traction earlier this year in the wake of the unilateral decision of President Jimmy Morales to end the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

On March 12 of this year, the Inter-American Court ordered Guatemala to cease debate of and permanently withdraw the bill, following a hearing requested by the Molina Theissen family, who argued that the bill violates their right to access justice. (The family previously sought and obtained the conviction of four senior military officials for the illegal detention, torture, and sexual violation of Emma Molina Theissen. Three of the officials were also convicted the enforced disappearance of her 14-year-old brother, Marco Antonio, in 1981.) The court found that the bill is in violation of the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as court orders regarding the Molina Theissen and other graves crimes cases. The bill was not withdrawn, but it failed to pass a third reading and has not been debated until now.

The effort to revive debate on bill 5377 also defies a July 18 ruling of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, which determined that the bill was in violation of the constitution and ordered Congress to suspend debate of the proposed legislation immediately. 

Only 38 members of Congress voted in favor of Linares Beltranena’s motion, far short of the 80 needed to place the bill on the legislative agenda. Most are members of the extreme right parties: the National Advancement Party (PAN), the National Change Union (UCN), and the current ruling party, the National Convergence Front (FCN-Nation).

The First Secretary of Congress, Estuardo Galdámez, attacked those voting against the motion, shouting out: “The left has voted against our institutions.” A former Kaibil soldier, Galdámez has been one of the most vociferous proponents of bill 5377 and has openly legislated in favor of military officials accused of war crimes. He has also sought to promote legislation to benefit retired and active-duty members of the military. Two weeks ago, he presented a bill that proposes to grant economic compensation to relatives of former soldiers, as well a “patriotic bonus” to the soldiers who fought during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict.

As International Justice Monitor has written about in previous posts, Galdámez’s father-in-law, retired army general Luis Enrique Méndoza García, was arrested on June 14 when he cast his vote in the presidential elections. Mendoza García was the chief of military operations and third-most senior member of the military high command during the government of Efraín Ríos Montt. He had been sought on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity since 2011 in relation to the Maya Ixil genocide case.

International Response

The effort to pass the amnesty bill prompted national and international reactions. On Twitter, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated that the effort to approve the bill was a direct challenge to the March 12 order of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Executive Secretary of the IACHR Paulo Abrao exhorted the Congress to withdraw bill 5377 completely, as mandated.

The President of Congress, Alvaro Arzú Escobar, responded on Twitter, stating that the IAHCR could not give orders to the Guatemalan Congress, and that as the chief legislative body of Guatemala, it could freely adopt legislation it considers necessary. Arzú did not mention the ruling by the Constitutional Court ordering the withdrawal of bill 5377. As International Justice Monitor previously reported, he and other members of the Permanent Commission of Congress filed a motion to impeach the three magistrates who signed that ruling. The motion to impeach has yet to be reviewed by the Supreme Court of Justice.

International human rights activists responded to Arzú, noting that Guatemala is obligated to uphold the rulings of the Inter-American Court and that international and national law forbids Guatemala from approving amnesties, statutes of limitations, or other measures intended to grant impunity to perpetrators of grave human rights violations.

Are We Going to be “Beaten Down” by the Inter-American Court?

On August 26, at the congressional meeting of party chiefs, deputies Linares Beltranena and Manuel Conde Orellana, both members of PAN, emphasized their determination to pass the amnesty bill.

“What are we going to do,” said Linares. “Are we going to be intimidated? Are we going to approve laws or are we going to be beaten down by the prohibitions of the Inter-American Court and the Constitutional Court?”

He went on to urge his peers to denounce the rulings of the Inter-American Court and the Constitutional Court, arguing that the amnesty bill was a transcendental issue for the population.

The following day, August 27, Linares Beltranena and Conde Orellana again sought to bring up the bill for a third reading, but the plenary rejected the motion. However, it may only be a matter of time before the bill is reintroduced.  

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.