Human Rights in Guatemala

by Jennifer Harbury

Global Exchange newsletter, Fall 1998


It's great to be here at Global Exchange, where I will be working on the CIA, the ongoing human rights situation in Guatemala, and helping to shape GX's human rights program.

The more I learn about the CIA, the more frightening the evidence becomes. I am receiving more and more eyewitness reports from people who were tortured throughout Latin America. Some were flown to secret detention centers in helicopters flown by people who were clearly North American. Some had North Americans in their torture cells asking their tormentors for more information. Some were directly questioned by persons with heavy North American accents. In short there is frightening evidence that 'our' government officials knew very well where the centers of secret detention and torture were located, who the torturers were, and who the victims were. Instead of acting to save human lives, our officials purchased information extracted through the use of torture. Then they turned their backs on the victims and left them to their fates. I believe the practice was widespread and routine. One of my first efforts here will be to write up a "White Paper" on precisely this issue, the legal questions it raises, and some suggestions as to what we can do about it.

Meanwhile, human rights in Guatemala continue to take a beating. A frightening trend that I am seeing is the army's assault on the judicial system. The final peace accords did not grant an amnesty for any human rights violations carried out by either side. This apparently is a bitter pill for the army to swallow. The first strategy was the widespread claim that there was no point having any trials for war crimes because the guerrillas and the military were equally bad. Better to forgive and forget. Then in early 1998, Bishop

Gerardi reported in the REMHI findings that the army was responsible for 85% of the atrocities, and the U.R.N.G. for less than 10 percent. Gerardi was bludgeoned to death 48 hours after making this report public, and there is clear evidence linking the military to his brutal assassination (such as a call made to a military base from the house just after the murder was committed).

The military's strategy is grim, although not exactly new. All the key cases are being blocked in the courts by bad faith manipulations. And the courts are literally under fire: judges, lawyers, plaintiffs, prosecutors, witnesses, and investigators are being attacked and are in fear for their lives.

I have pulled the following information from the last six months alone:

* Sylvia Jerez, the prosecutor in my own case, was forced off the road, shot thirteen times and left dead together with her badly wounded assistant. The prosecutor investigating her murder has resigned under threats. He had sought official protection but the authorities failed to provide any.

* Another official was told that if he continued to investigate an of ficial corruption case, his wife would be killed and his children kidnapped.

* In the Xaman massacre case, a military lawyer first tried to bribe key witnesses, then a lawyer for the Xaman survivors was followed and threatened.

* The Guatemalan Supreme Court reversed the conviction of certain police and military officials in the case of law student Alioto Lopez Sanchez, who was beaten to death during a protest in 1994. The reversal took place despite remarkable evidence, including film taken as the killing took place.

* Relatives of Epaminondas Dubon, the slain Judge of the Corte de Constitucionalidad, have decided to withdraw from the case because of death threats.

* The Supreme Court announced that six judges have received death threats.

* Another judge, this one in Chimaltenango, was told to leave the country in fifteen days or face assassination.

Even more frightening is the recent effort by the Guatemalan army to annul the international agreement to subject the government of Guatemala to Inter-American Court jurisdiction of the Organization of American States (OAS). This international court only accepts cases where it can be shown that the domestic courts of a nation cannot handle the matter, either because no legal remedy exists or because the courts are de facto non-functional (as in Guatemala). Precisely for this reason, the Inter-American Court has heard two cases recently-in addition to mine-and in both cases the Court ruled against Guatemala.

My own case was heard in June. The decision is still pending but we expect a positive result.

I am confident that the Court will soon take more cases out of Guatemala. The Guatemalan military thinks so too, and they don't want a dozen international condemnations. So they are now trying to force the government to withdraw from the Court's jurisdiction. In short, the army is declaring itself to be above justice.

This does not bode well for the transition to peace. Please "stay tuned." We will be needing your help soon.


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