Members of Congress Push State Department for Stronger Action on Guatemala

The situation for judicial officials and human rights defenders in Guatemala continues to worsen. An update on the congressional Dear Colleague letter can be found below. The letter is out! Thank you for your help!

In a letter released October 15, seventeen members of Congress, led by Representative Raul Grijalva and Representative Norma Torres, asked Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to take stronger action to support human rights and the rule of law in Guatemala. Lawmakers asked that the US strongly oppose laws that endanger the work of civil society and the right to justice; ensure protection for the family of former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval and others at risk; and “leverage all our diplomatic tools, including additional visa restrictions, targeted economic sanctions, steps to ensure accountability in any international lending, and the withholding of assistance and economic support for those in the public and private sector who have committed, financed, and abetted corruption and who are

undermining democracy in Guatemala.” The full text of the letter is here. The letter was signed by Reps. James P. McGovern, Ilhan Omar, Mike Quigley, Jesús G. “Chuy” García, Joaquin Castro, Mark Pocan, Adriano Espaillat, Alan Lowenthal, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Rashida Tlaib,  Juan Vargas, Albio Sires, Maxine Waters, Lucille Roybal-Allard, and Jim Himes. Many thanks again to those who took action!

Attorney General Transfers Out Chief Human Rights Prosecutor  

On October 11, Attorney General Consuelo Porras transferred esteemed prosecutor Hilda Pineda out of her position as head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office on Human Rights, assigning her instead to the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Tourists. The Convergence for Human Rights denounced Pineda’s transfer and demanded that Porras “cease her actions to destroy the Public Ministry’s criminal prosecution capabilities.” 

In her ten years as head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office on Human Rights, Pineda led successful prosecutions of military officers responsible for crimes against humanity during the internal armed conflict. Pineda played a pivotal role in the advancement of cases such as the Death Squad Dossier case, the genocide case against Efrain Rios Montt, and the Dos Erres case. According to Impunity Watch, the transfer “puts at risk the investigation of emblematic cases of serious human rights violations.”

The families, victims, and survivors of the Death Squad Dossier case condemned Pineda’s transfer, voicing their support for Prosecutor Pineda and her team of prosecutors, who, as they noted, are  “committed to justice, objectivity, and professionalism that have strengthened transitional justice processes.”  

As the Never Again Genocide Coordinating Committee points out, Pineda’s transfer occurred in a context increasing attacks on journalists and judicial officials, categories which fall under her office’s purview, as well as advancements in key transitional justice cases. In the Dos Erres massacre case, for example, in which hundreds of villagers, including children, were brutally killed, a court has just ruled that deported US resident José Mardoque Ortiz will stand trial. Other cases moving forward in the courts include the case against Luis Enrique Mendoza Garcia, director of the Army’s General Staff from 1982 to 1983, for genocide and crimes against humanity commited against the Ixil people. The Death Squad Dossier case, in which eleven former military and police officers are accused of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity, is also advancing. 

The US withdrew financial support to the Attorney General’s Office in July, following Porras’ arbitrary removal of the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval. The US pulled Porras’ visa in September, designating her on the Engel list as one of Guatemala’s “undemocratic and corrupt” officials. In Guatemala, the public has been calling for her removal for months.  In the words of Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, Pineda’s transfer serves as yet “another cynical and transparent move to undermine important anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala.” 

High-Risk Judge Faces Further Threat 

Judges of Guatemala’s High-Risk Courts, which handle cases related to corruption and grave human rights violations, are under increasing threat, and pressure is building on High-Risk Court Judge Pablo Xitimul. Judge Eduardo Galván, an investigative judge of the Second Court of Appeals, has recommended the removal of Judge Pablo Xitumul’s immunity from prosecution. Xitimul, known as an independent judge, has overseen many pivotal cases and, with the possible loss of his immunity, could face baseless charges that have been leveled against him in apparent retaliation for his rulings.  Guatemala’s Supreme Court had asked Judge Galván “to declare the formation of a case against the judge as justified.” Now the Supreme Court and the Appeals Chamber will determine whether or not to remove Xitimul’s  immunity and allow the Public Ministry to conduct an official investigation into an incident that occured in 2019. (read more about the incident on our blog). 

Xitumul denounced the accusation against him as spurious and irregular and said he was not given a chance to submit evidence to be incorporated into the report sent to the Supreme Court. He has filed a request for the recusal of six Supreme Court magistrates and six Appeals Court judges overseeing the next step in the process, arguing that they have exhibited a lack of impartiality. 

Xitumul currently serves as President of High Risk Court “C.” He oversaw several high profile cases, including the Rios Montt genocide case in 2013. Xitumul has denounced the case against him as an attempt to seek revenge. In a joint statement, 400 organizations and individuals expressed support for Xitumul, arguing that “independent justice is at risk due to the campaigns to criminalize judges that have convicted individuals that are corrupt and have committed human rights violations.”

Organizations Request Protective Measures for Migrants Suffering Under Title 42 

Human rights organizations requested emergency precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of asylum seekers who have been or would be expelled from the United States under the Title 42 policy.  The request is aimed at stopping the US from expelling asylum seekers at the Southern Border. Originally implemented during the Trump administration, Title 42 allows border officials to expel undocumented migrants to their home countries without allowing them to make a political asylum claim. Between October 2020 and August 2021, 938,045 migrants were expelled under Title 42. 

According to the request, Title 42 violates the human right principle of nonrefoulment, which “guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.” Nicole Ramos at Al Otro Lado–one of the twelve organizations that made the request–explains,“Title 42 as a policy is the wall that Trump promised he would build but could never finance.” Harold Koh, a senior adviser and the sole political appointee on the State Department’s legal team, resigned earlier this month to protest the policy, calling it“illegal” and “inhumane.”

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