International organisations call for Guatemala to revoke the sanction on Yassmin Barrios, Senior Judge in Guatemala’s Historic Genocide Trial

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10th November 2014-

Regional and international organisations are calling for Guatemala to respect judicial independence and reject the illegal sanction imposed upon Judge Yassmin Barrios. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court is currently hearing an appeal on the grounds of unconstitutionality that questions the authority of the disciplinary body of the Guatemalan law association, known as CANG (Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala), to sanction Judge Barrios for her actions as judge during the 2013 trial of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and his then chief of intelligence Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez.

Nine international organisations and organisations from Latin America – Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), International Platform against Impunity, and Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) – call for Guatemala to revoke this sanction, and guarantee the independence and impartiality of the Guatemalan judiciary.

Guatemalan judge Yassmin Barrios has acted admirably and independently in high profile cases throughout a career that has spanned almost two decades. In addition to the Ríos Montt genocide trial, Judge Barrios has presided over the cases of the extrajudicial killings of Archbishop Monsignor Juan Gerardi and anthropologist Myrna Mack, the Dos Erres and Plan de Sánchez massacres, the death of Rodrigo Rosenberg and cases relating to crimes committed by drug traffickers, among others. 
She now faces fierce retaliation, including threats to her ability to freely practice law, as a result of her involvement in the genocide trial.

On 4th April 2014, CANG’s disciplinary body suspended the judge from practicing law for one year, following an unfounded complaint from a member of the legal team of Ríos Montt’s co-accused. This body also ordered a public reprimand, imposed a fine and referred the case to the Guatemalan public prosecution service. According to the disciplinary body, the “unethical” actions of Judge Barrios “have made a mockery of and humiliated” the defence lawyer.

The use of CANG’s disciplinary body to sanction a judge is almost unheard of in Latin America, including in Guatemala where the law states that the Judicial Disciplinary Board handles complaints relating to alleged judicial misconduct. Indeed, a similar complaint against Judge Barrios had already been dealt with – and rejected – by the same board one year ago.

The decision reached by CANG’s disciplinary body was condemned at the time, both internationally and domestically. However, the authority that heard the appeal dismissed the legal challenge brought by the judge; although the fine and the suspension were overturned, the stain on the judge’s record was upheld. Judge Barrios filed an appeal against this decision that was illogically transferred to the court responsible for femicide. On 22nd October (decision dated 18th July), this court notified Judge Barrios that her legal challenge had been rejected. Her latest appeal is now before Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

One year ago, Guatemala showed the world that it was possible to effectively prosecute serious crimes against human rights in domestic courts. Now, it has become a model demonstrating the challenges facing these internal processes and exposes the risks encountered by the independent judges and prosecutors who dare to pass judgement on the country’s powerful figures.

The importance of this decision is heightened as it occurs within the framework of the nomination process for all magistrates to Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice and appeals courts. CANG plays a central role in the appointment of these key judicial figures.
A sanction imposed upon Judge Barrios threatens the judicial independence of Guatemala and the ability of all the country’s judges and prosecutors to act without fear of interference or sanction. Upholding the sanction violates international law and should therefore be revoked.

* Yassmin Barrios recently received the Woman of Courage Award from Michelle Obama.

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