Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Civil Society, Judges Team Up Against Judicial Corruption in Guatemala

The system by which Guatemala nominates candidates for its appellate and Supreme Courts is notoriously corrupt. As Steve Dudley has explained for InSight Crime, a process meant to guarantee that only the most qualified candidates become judges has been entirely overrun by special interests and backroom politicking.

Last week, Guatemala’s Congress selected appellate and Supreme Court judges from a vetted list of candidates, the last step in a process Dudley describes as a “free-for-all with various political, economic and criminal interests.”

This description fits well with the end results of the nomination vote. It has been widely reported that justices were appointed as a result of an agreement between the ruling Patriot Party (PP) and the largest opposition faction, the Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER).  

News site Nomada has more on the agreement, noting that it was struck in the wake of a Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) ruling that suspended the PP from political activities for 6 months over its early launch of its 2015 presidential candidate in September. According to Plaza Publica, PP head and Vice President Roxana Baldetti appears to be calling in favors already, taking advantage of her party’s appointments to challenge the TSE ruling in the newly-changed Supreme Court.

While the rampant state of corruption in Guatemala often leads to pessimism regarding its rickety justice system -- see the L.A. Times’ recent report, “Guatemala, once a leader in war-crime prosecutions, at a standstill” for an example -- there is room for hope in this case. Civil society advocates have spoken out about the shady judicial nominations, and not only are they being heard, but they have also gained support from local judicial actors and international organizations.

Claudia Escobar Mejia, who was chosen for an appellate court seat in the recent elections, made headlines on Monday when she announced that she would be resigning in protest of the “perverse” election process. On Tuesday she was joined by some 45 other judges who supported her decision, and together they called on the Constitutional Court to take up legal challenges to the appointments presented by Fundacion Myrna Mack and other Guatemalan groups. El Periodico reports that Escobar said she and her allies were prepared to hold a “partial strike” if the Court failed to hear these challenges.

Five international civil society groups -- the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) -- have issued a letter to Guatemalan authorities praising Escobar’s decision and calling on them to fix irregularities in the nominations.

These calls have since been echoed by Gabriela Knaul, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

All of this activism is having an effect. Leading daily Prensa Libre’s home page today reports that international pressure is building on Congress to void the current nominations and start over.  And according to El Periodico, the office of Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman is preparing to file a petition with the Attorney General’s Office alleging eight major abnormalities in the nominations proceedings.

News Briefs
  • In a Miami Herald op-ed, Center for American Progress fellow and former Obama adviser Dan Restrepo takes Latin American pundits and analysts to task for obsessing over Panama’s decision to invite Cuba to the April 2015 Summit of the Americas. The summit, he argues, “must be about more than its invite list.”
  • While Bolivian President Evo Morales’ victory is all but assured in the upcoming elections, the race has been more interesting on a legislative level. His MAS party is seeking to achieve a solid two-thirds legislative majority, which it currently lacks, but BBC Mundo reports that a wave of feminist/anti-chauvinist activism has challenged otherwise strong candidates of both MAS and the opposition.
  • Mexican authorities have presented yet another version of events regarding the June killing of 22 suspects in the state of Mexico. Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told reporters yesterday that the majority of the suspects had been either wounded or dead in an initial shootout with soldiers, but that three soldiers then re-entered the warehouse where the shootings happened and killed those remaining. Murilllo said a witness had supported this version, even though the AP notes that she previously gave a different account to reporters.
  • The AP reports that for the first time, Mexican officials have busted what amounts to a clandestine AR-15 semi-automatic rifle part factory. The operation, which took place on two farms in Jalisco, produced some rifle parts independently, in addition to purchasing others from the United States. The discovery takes on added significance amid the growing support for 3-D printed guns. As Wired magazine reported recently, libertarian gun rights activists have recently begun exploiting a legal loophole to produce and sell a $1,200 machine that allows anyone to make their own unregistered AR-15 receivers at home.
  • Following a similar report in Estadão yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reports that sources close to ousted Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva say she is considering backing Aecio Neves in the runoff in exchange for his support for putting an end to presidential reelection.                                                                                                         
  • The Global Post reports on the impact that Ecuador’s revised criminal code, which went into effect in August, has had on low-level drug offenders in the country. Since August 10, some 500 “drug mules” have been freed after the updated code was applied retroactively to their cases, and least another 2,000 are expected to follow.
  • The last leader of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, Reynaldo Bignone, was sentenced yesterday to an additional 23 years in prison on top of the life sentence he already received for crimes against humanity.  According to La Nacion, yesterday’s ruling stemmed from the kidnapping and torture of 32 factory workers.  The BBC reports that the victims say the verdict was bittersweet, as three of the accused were found not guilty.