Guatemala: A country resisting, a State torturing

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Shalom de León via Unsplash

Geneva-Paris-Guatemala, 8 April 2022. The dismantling of the rule of law in Guatemala and the co-optation of State powers with a corrupt political and economic agenda against human rights is intensifying, with devastating effects on human rights defenders. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (International Federation for Human Rights -FIDH and Word Organisation Against Torture -OMCT), the Unidad de Protección a Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) and Centre for Civil and Political Rights (Centre-CCPR) UDEFEGUA, CALDH, CCPR and the Observatory (OMCT-FIDH) express concern, following their visit to the country.

Guatemala is experiencing an alarming phenomenon of capture and control of public institutions by economic and political elites, which has increased violence and repression against both urban and rural citizens. The spaces for civil society’s participation have been closed. Civil society groups do not consider the election process of the Attorney General of the Public Prosecutor’s Office to be legitimate, and are concerned about the appointment of the next Human Rights Prosecutor in view of the departure of Jordán Rodas Andrade — a position that remains the last instance for the protection of rights.

The international mission carried out by the CCPR and the Observatory between 28 March and 4 April in the country focused on three aspects:
 persecution and criminalisation of anti-corruption justice operators;
 racist repression and criminalisation of Indigenous leaders and communities defending territory and natural resources;
 a series of legislative, political and judicial actions that have closed civic space and strengthened the authoritarian regime.

The various forms of harassment against those who act within a framework of rights had already been identified in the report "An unpaid debt" published by the Observatory and UDEFEGUA in January 2021. The lack of a judicial system guaranteeing due process and the right to defence has led to:
 the instrumentalisation of criminal law to build cases without legal basis or evidence, against which it is impossible to defend oneself according to law, further aggravated by the capture and control of the high courts;
 the obstruction and delay in criminal proceedings with the aim of punishing and humiliating the persecuted persons, which in the case of monolingual Indigenous persons is aggravated by the burden of discrimination;
 difficulties for the technical criminal defence of human rights defenders to uphold the right to defence guaranteed in national legislation and international standards.

This context has forced judicial operators and defenders into exile and has led to a general increase in emigration. At least 23 members of the judiciary and prosecution, recognised for their independent work, have been forced to leave the country since April 2021, while at least 10 prosecutors are being criminally prosecuted.

“The particular targeting of women is remarkable. We have identified a profound misogynist and discriminatory nature in the harassment of women defenders who lead the fight against impunity and in favour of human rights. This is the case of the attacks against the judge Érika Aifán, the ex-member of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) Leyli Santizo, and the ex-prosecutors of Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) Xiomara Sosa, Paola Escobar, Aliss Morán and Virginia Laparra.”

explained Teresa Fernández Paredes, human rights adviser at OMCT and part of the international delegation that visited Guatemala

Prosecutor Virginia Laparra is deprived of her liberty thanks to a case built without legal basis and is held in worrying detention conditions, especially regarding lighting, ventilation, air conditioning, sanitation, and access to fresh air and physical exercise. These conditions violate international standards on the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, such as Rules 12 to 23 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules), as well as the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Prisoners (Bangkok Rules), which constitute ill-treatment.

In Guatemala, Indigenous leaders and peasants have been criminalised for defending water, territory, and natural resources. The mission notes with concern that the Public Prosecutor’s Office is being used by private companies to eliminate the legitimate protection of resources exercised by the communities. This is the case of Marcelino Xol Cucul Cucul and Jorge Coc Coc -peasant leaders of the Comité Campesino del Altiplano CCDA de las Verapaces- who were sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment for a crime they did not commit. Their Committee continues to face relentless attacks: 1,000 arrest warrants against peasant members of the CCDA have been issued in more than 42 of the 150 Q’eqchi’s communities they accompany. In communities such as Río Cristalino, made up of 50 Indigenous families, 59 arrest warrants have been issued; in others communities such as Nueva Libertad, made up of 32 families, 78 arrest warrants have been issued. On 30 March 2022, 21 members of the Chicoyogüitod community, arrested for peacefully demonstrating to demand restitution of their lands illegally taken from them in the context of the internal armed conflict, were sent to trial and will face criminal proceedings that could result in significant prison sentences.

Against this backdrop, Guatemala continues to fail to comply with its international obligations: 2,776 days have passed since the August 2014 ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ordered Guatemala to promote a participatory Protection Policy for Human Rights Defenders. This ruling has still not been complied with.

"We are living through a regression that reminds us of the situation before the internal armed conflict. If this trend does not change soon, we can safely say that Guatemala has become a totalitarian state where anyone who believes in democracy and human rights will become a target of the state"

said Jorge Santos of UDEFEGUA

The UN Committees have made similar pronouncements. The Human Rights Committee stressed, in its recent observations of March 2022, its deep concern about the situation faced by human rights defenders, judicial operators, and Indigenous peoples in the country. The Committee against Torture in its last report of December 2018 already called for concrete measures to eradicate corruption in the judicial, penitentiary, and police system, which has given rise to acts of torture.

Guatemalan citizens are therefore declaring their resistance to a state that tortures, criminalises, and attacks life itself. It is up to all people to stand up for respect for the human rights and dignity of all.

For more information, please contact:

OMCT: Iolanda Jaquemet: + 41 22 809 49 39
FIDH: José Carlos Thissen: + 51 95 41 31 650
UDEFEGUA: Jorge Santos: +502 4297 0094
CCPR: Mariel Merayo: +41 22 332 25 55

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

The Unidad de Protección a Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) is an organisation that has been providing services to human rights defenders in Guatemala and in countries of the Central American region since 2000, for individual and collective capacity building and self-management of risks. UDEFEGUA is a member organisation of OMCT’s SOS-Torture Network.

The Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) is a human rights organisation that exercises autonomous political action by valuing, constructing and integrating the knowledge, struggles and memories of Mayan peoples and communities, women and youth. In alliance with them, it promotes and accompanies processes of rebellion and resistance for emancipation from racist, class-based and patriarchal oppression, fights for historical justice, the recovery of memory, the re-signification of history and the defence of the body-land-territory, building lives free of violence.

The Centre for Civil and Political Rights (Centre-CCPR) is an independent, non-governmental organisation with a mission to contribute to the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) worldwide. The Centre does this by supporting civil society, as well as by connecting and engaging key actors in the implementation of the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendations. The Centre was established in Geneva in 2008 and has regional offices in Central Asia, Asia Pacific, Africa and Latin America.

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