The First High Risk Appellate Court has granted the recusal motion filed by the Attorney General’s Office against Judge Claudette Domínguez in the Maya Achi sexual violence case. The court found that Judge Domínguez’s questioning of a survivor-witness was prejudicial and evidence of bias and that she may have direct or indirect interest in the outcome of the case because her sister is an active-duty military physician.
Critics have long charged that Judge Domínguez has a demonstrated record of bias and partiality and that her rulings have consistently favored members of the Guatemalan military and other powerful figures charged with a range of crimes, from wartime human rights violations to corruption and murder charges that had no political context.
Judges based the ruling, made on September 9, on their unanimous finding that questions Judge Domínguez posed to a victim during evidentiary hearings were prejudicial and revealed her partiality in favor of the accused. After the prosecutor concluded his questioning of the witness during a hearing in August of 2017, Judge Domínguez asked the witness if she had been obligated to testify or if the Attorney General’s Office had paid her to testify. Because of her sister’s position in the military, the court reasoned, she could have a direct or indirect interest in the outcome of the case.
The court transferred the case to Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez of the pre-trial High Risk Court “B.”
The Maya Achi Sexual Violence Case
In May 2018, authorities arrested seven former members of the Guatemalan civil defense patrols (PACs) and charged them with crimes against humanity for wartime sexual violence against 36 Maya Achi women in Rabinal, Alta Verapaz, between 1981 and 1985. After a delay of about a year, the evidentiary hearings commenced in May 2019. One of the defendants died as the evidentiary hearings were unfolding.
On June 21, 2019, Judge Domínguez ruled that there was insufficient evidence to send the remaining six men to trial for crimes against humanity. The ruling was sharply criticized for its use of specious technical arguments to exclude key evidence in the case, including the direct testimonies of the women-survivors, in which they identify the six men as the direct perpetrators of sexual violence against them. On June 25, Judge Domínguez ordered the release of all six men.
According to government prosecutors, during the internal armed conflict, the six accused were members of the civil defense patrols, which the Guatemalan army deployed to control the local population and which engaged in serious abuses of human rights. Three others wanted in the case have not yet been brought to court. Two remain at large, while one was detained in the United States this past May.
Lucia Xiloj, one of the lawyers representing the victims in the case, told International Justice Monitor: “Fortunately, today the First High Risk Appellate Court accepted one of the arguments invoked by the Attorney General’s Office demonstrating the judge’s bias in favor of the accused in the Maya Achi case. It is our hope that the new court will review the evidence, especially the testimonies of the women survivors, and that the judicial process will continue its course.”
Xiloj said that she was optimistic that an impartial judge would conclude that the evidence was more than sufficient bring the six accused to trial. In addition, she said, she hoped that Judge Domínguez’s decision to free the accused would be revoked and that they would then be returned to pretrial detention.
Victims in two other cases have also filed recusal motions against Judge Domínguez: the Maya Ixil genocide case against former chief of military operations retired general Luis Enrique Mendoza García; and the CREOMPAZ enforced disappearance case. Eight senior military officials have been awaiting trial since 2016 in the CREOMPAZ case, but it remains mired in a series of unresolved appeals.
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.