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Guatemalan Judges Face Reprisals for Speaking Out Against Corruption

Last Friday, Judge Claudia Escobar announced in a statement that a number of Guatemalan judges are being harassed and persecuted after speaking out against corruption during the election of the new Supreme Court and Appellate Court magistrates in 2014. The retaliatory measures taken against them, she said, include being forcibly transferred to remote locations or unfairly dismissed.

On October 5, 2014, Judge Escobar, who had been re-elected as Appellate Court magistrate days earlier, resigned just before being sworn in for a second period, and handed over to the authorities an audiotape of Congressman Gudy Rivera seeking her support in a case implicating Vice President Roxana Baldetti in exchange for Rivera’s support during the nomination process. Judge Escobar’s resignation in protest against Congressman Rivera’s attempt to bribe her came after a highly contentious nomination process that was mired in corruption and influence peddling allegations against the members of the nomination committee in charge of assessing candidates and submitting a shortlist to Congress, which made the final choice.

More than 50 judges, as well as Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge de León Duque, supported Judge Escobar’s call for an annulment of the appointments and the initiation of a new nomination process.

Judge Escobar became an overnight heroine, and in the face of a huge public opinion backlash against the country’s judicial institutions, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (CC) temporarily suspended all of the nominations. However, on November 20, the CC controversially endorsed the results after three out of five CC magistrates, including the CC’s president, Roberto Molina Barreto, voted against the annulment of the appointments, arguing that there was insufficient evidence of irregularities during the nomination process.

Patricia Gámez, one of the two judges who testified before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) regarding the alleged irregularities in the nomination process, is among the judges who are now claiming that they are being punished by the judicial establishment.

On February 11, the Supreme Court notified Judge Gámez that she had been transferred from the criminal trial court of Sacatepéquez, near Guatemala City, to the northern department of Huehuetenango, located 269 kilometers from the capital city, on the border with Mexico. The letter contained no justification for the move.

Judge Jennie Molina received a similar notification on March 2. After spending the past 11 years as a family court judge in the department of Santa Rosa, 75 kilometers from Guatemala City, the Supreme Court informed her of an immediate transfer to Petén, 600 kilometers away, without offering any justification. Judge Molina insists that her scores in recent evaluations have been near perfect and that the relocation is a reprisal for supporting Judge Escobar.

Judges Gámez and Molina have filed a constitutional challenge before the CC, arguing that under Guatemalan law, judges are appointed for five-year terms and can only be transferred based on a justified decision following a hearing.

Two other judges tell similar stories. Criminal judge Erica Aifán was relocated from the eastern department of Jutiapa to the municipality of Cuilapa, in Santa Rosa department—more than an hour away, and Judge Marco Antonio Villeda, who also supported Judge Escobar, claims he was denied the right to travel to Panama to participate in a regional conference.

The Myrna Mack Foundation, a local human rights organization, has also highlighted the case of court officer Tatiana Morales, who was dismissed without justification after she mounted a constitutional challenge against the 2014 judicial appointment process.

At least 70 court officials have denounced retaliatory actions against them—including suspensions, transfers to distant locations, and unjustified disciplinary actions and dismissals.

On March 5, Judge Escobar issued a statement urging the Supreme Court to stop “harassing” court officials and demanding that Ombudsman De León guarantee the rights of judicial employees.

“Since my resignation [as Appellate Court magistrate], a group of 70 judges, magistrates and court officials publicly rejected the violation of judicial independence by supporting the [possible] suspension of the inauguration of the new judges for the Supreme Court and Appellate Court decreed by the Constitutional Court. Today, they are the subject of harassment and persecution,” read the statement.

“I urge my fellow judges not to allow [themselves] to be intimidated and to continue with their important work in favor of peace and justice for all Guatemalans,” she added.

In response, Supreme Court President Josué Felipe Baquiax asserted that the transfers were unanimous decisions of the Supreme Court and do not constitute retaliation. He added that the transfers were within the authority of the court and that a prior hearing was held before each of the transfers were notified, in compliance with the law.

Baquiax justified the transfers by stating that the Supreme Court “would not tolerate corruption and breach of duty,” hinting that the judges who were relocated have a tainted track record. However, many of the judges and court officers who claim they are being subjected to reprisals have never been accused of corruption or any other misdemeanors. Judges Gámez and Molina, for example, have made public recent evaluations in which they have achieved high scores as proof that their transfer is unjustified. On the other hand, a number of judges who are currently under investigation by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for corruption allegations, Jisela Reinoso and Erick Santiago, have not faced the threat of transfer.

Civil society organizations such as the Myrna Mack Foundation and the Movimiento Pro Justicia (Movement for Justice) have expressed concern over the alleged harassment and intimidation of independent judges and will raise the issue before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which will hold its next session in Washington DC from March 13 to 27.

*Louisa Reynolds is an independent journalist based in Guatemala. Her work has been published in a wide range of local and international publications. She is the 2014-2015 International Women's Media Foundation Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow. Follow her on Twitter: @ReynoldsLouisa.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Guatemala, Judge Claudia Escobar, Judicial Reform

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