Friday, October 25, 2013

Guatemalan Court to Reassess Amnesty for Rios Montt

Recent days have seen a flurry of media reports offering conflicting accounts about a Guatemalan Constitutional Court decision which could pave the way for General Efrain Rios Montt to claim amnesty from charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Although the ruling was delivered on Tuesday, the fact that it was not immediately made public has complicated reporting on the decision, leading to different interpretations about its implications for his retrial, which is scheduled to begin in April of next year.

Prensa Libre first broke the story on Wednesday after obtaining a copy of the Constitutional Court ruling, and wrongly reported that a majority of the court was in agreement that Rios Montt should be exempt from prosecution in accordance with a 1986 general amnesty decree passed by the military regime. The paper also claimed that the court ordered Judge Carol Patricia Flores, who argued in favor of annulling testimony leading to Rios Montt’s guilty verdict (the conviction was eventually overturned in May), to issue a clarification of the amnesty’s applicability to the Rios Montt case.

This was swiftly picked up by Spanish news agency EFE, which spoke with a representative of the court who confirmed that the decision “opened the door” to amnesty for the ex-dictator.

But Prensa Libre’s interpretation of the ruling was flawed. El Periodico subsequently reported that Constitutional Court secretary Martin Guzman told local press that the court had not in fact endorsed the application of the amnesty decree, only instructing a lower court to order Flores to reassess it.

However, it seems even this version of events proved to be off base. Today El Periodico is reporting that the First Chamber of Appeals will be charged with re-assessing the application of the amnesty law, not Judge Flores. The president of the chamber, Judge Jorge Mario Valenzuela, has announced that he and his colleagues were given the higher court’s ruling yesterday, and said they will issue their decision today or tomorrow.

Meanwhile the Center for Human Rights and Legal Action (CALDH), a civil party in the Rios Montt trial, has objected to granting amnesty to the ex-dictator. Siglo21 reports that CALDH Deputy Director Alejandra Castillo told reporters that the organization maintains that the 1986 decree cannot legally be applied to the genocide charges he faces.

It’s worth noting that, despite the conflicting information coming from Guatemala’s mainstream media outlets, investigative news site Plaza Publica has had the most accurate coverage of developments in the Rios Montt case. On Wednesday, Plaza Publica called out Prensa Libre for its “erroneous interpretation,” and correctly pointed out that the ruling applied to the First Chamber, without mentioning Judge Flores.

Ultimately, if there’s a takeaway from this it might be that while the future of the Rios Montt case and other human rights trials in Guatemala appear to be in jeopardy, at least there is some hope for quality, independent journalism in the country.

News Briefs
  • After documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the United States intelligence agency has monitored the private phone calls of both Brazilian and German heads of state, both countries are joining forces to pressure the UN to rein in U.S. espionage. Foreign Policy has the exclusive story, reporting that Brazilian and German diplomats met in New York yesterday, along with representatives of other Latin American and European governments, to discuss a draft resolution calling for the expansion of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to include online privacy.
  • NPR has an interview with Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, on the spread of Haiti’s cholera outbreak -- which was quite likely introduced by UN peacekeepers -- to elsewhere in the region. In addition to recently springing up in Mexico, it has already spread to Cuba, Chile and Venezuela, and Andrus predicts it will spread even further in the coming months.
  • The case against Steven Donziger and other Ecuadorean plaintiffs who successfully sued Chevron for environmental damages is heating up. A former Ecuadorean judge has testified that he and a colleague accepted bribes to issue a guilty ruling against the oil giant, issuing a $19 billion judgment two-and-a-half years ago.
  • While Mexico has been more muted in its response to the revelations of U.S. surveillance, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s insistence on an explanation from the U.S. ambassador as well as the administration’s announcement that an investigation into Mexican collusion with U.S. spying efforts is underway suggest the news has raised tensions between the two countries nonetheless. The L.A. Times reports on Mexico’s reaction to the NSA scandal, noting that it may have fueled traditional perceptions of the U.S. as “a brash cowboy of a country.”
  • An explosion at a candy factory in Ciudad Juarez left one dead and at least 40 injured yesterday. Animal Politico reports that officials are still looking into the cause of the blast, though preliminary investigation suggests it was caused by a buildup of steam in a boiler.
  • El Universal reports that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced the creation of a new cabinet position, which will be charged with overseeing the various social programs known as “Bolivarian Missions” in the country. Maduro said the new position will be called the “Vice-Ministry for the Supreme Social Happiness of the Venezuelan People,” a move caused BBC Mundo  to report, tongue in cheek, that the president is “apparently taking happiness very seriously.”
  • Rio-based journalist Julia Michaels has an overview of recent public remarks by Rio de Janeiro State's Public Safety Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame, who has spearheaded efforts to modernize the city’s police force.  
  • Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez, who underwent emergency surgery two weeks ago to remove a blood clot on her brain, is “making a recovery consistent with the time after her operation,” her doctors said in a statement released on Wednesday. The statement also said that she would continue to undergo recovery until November 8, when her status would be reevaluated. Meanwhile, the Financial Times notes that Fernandez’s party is widely expected to see major losses in a midterm legislative election on Sunday, which could put her alleged re-election ambitions to an end.
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ declining approval rating has officially put his chances of being re-elected at risk. Semana magazine reports that, if next May’s presidential election were held today, Santos would lose to his own cousin, the Uribista candidate Presdent Francisco Santos Calderon. The paper cites a new Cifras y Conceptos poll conducted earlier this month, which is notable for showing that none of the expected candidates are particularly popular. The survey puts Santos Calderon at 18 percent approval, followed by Santos with 16 percent, and 37 percent saying they are unsure.  The president has not officially announced whether he will run for reelection, and has until next month to do so.
  • Haitian opposition lawyer Andre Michel, whose detention on Wednesday triggered mass anti-government protests in Port-Au-Prince, has spoken out about his arrest, the AP reports. Michel says he was arrested for his political work and his willingness to bring corruption cases against government officials.
  • Today marks the 30th anniversary of Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. invasion of Grenada following the overthrow and murder of leftist Prime Minister Maurice Rupert Bishop. It remains the only conflict in which U.S. and Cuban troops fought each other directly, and both countries continue to remember the incident vastly different. The Miami Herald reports on the whereabouts of several of the Cuban commanders in the conflict, noting that the top Cuban commander in Grenada, Col. Pedro Tortolo Comas, was last confirmed driving a taxi in Havana. The former Cuban ambassador to the Caribbean country, Julian Torres Rizo, now reportedly lists himself as a tourist guide. The Daily Beast has a firsthand account of the invasion from former Army Ranger medic Stephen Trujillo, as well as an analysis of its geopolitical significance from neoconservative scholar Michael Ledeen, who characterizes the Bishop government as a “secretive totalitarian regime.”