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Guatemala: harassment against HRDs & threat to the rule of law

30 received concerning information regarding the harassment, including at the judicial level, of human rights defenders in Guatemala, including journalist José Rubén Zamora and former human rights prosecutor Orlando Salvador López. This occurs in the context of strong repression against anti-corruption and anti-impunity justice operators and the closure of the civic space, a few months before the General Elections in the country.

On March 21, former human rights prosecutor Orlando Salvador López was indicted, following his arrest on March 16. Mr López appeared before the Fifth Pluripersonal Court of First Criminal Instance, Drug Activity and Crimes against the Environment of Guatemala for a first statement hearing. The Internal Affairs Prosecutor of the Public Ministry (MP) accuses Mr López of practising as a lawyer and notary in the last year that he served as a section prosecutor in the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, positions that would be incompatible. The court decided to indict him for « abuse of authority » and ruled that he be placed under house arrest and imposed a financial bail on him, as well as a ban on leaving the country.

Internationally recognized, Orlando Salvador López led the investigations and accusations that culminated in the conviction in first instance of the dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in 2013 for the genocide of more than 1,700 Maya Ixil indigenous people at the hands of the Guatemalan army between August 1982 and March 1983, as well as for crimes against humanity in the context of the Internal Armed Conflict. The former prosecutor also led the criminal prosecution against former senior military officials for serious human rights violations, such as the CREOMPAZ and Molina Theissen cases. Since then, he has been targeted through smear campaigns and criminalization, attacks that have been supported or led by far-right organisations..

Representatives of these far-right organisations appeared at the Fifth Court on March 16, 2023, where they carried out a series of acts of humiliation and intimidation against the former prosecutor. In videos published in the Guatemalan press and on social networks, Orlando Salvador López can be seen, handcuffed, and verbally harassed by them. The harassment and spread of false information against Orlando Salvador López continue on social media.

This occurs in a context of the dismantling of the Guatemalan judicial system and the systematic persecution of justice officials who independently work to put an end to impunity and corruption in the country, as well as a closure of the civic space, of systematic violation of rights such as freedom of expression and association, as well as the criminalization of journalism and the right to defend human rights.

Indeed, in early March 2023, the current Special Prosecutor against Impunity singled out and stigmatised human rights organisations for exercising their right to freedom of expression, putting the Guatemalan organisation UDEFEGUA at particular risk of criminalization. The organisation voiced criticism against the co-optation of the judicial system, which includes the judicial harassment of the journalist José Rubén Zamora, facing trial in retaliation for exercising his journalistic work.

Furthermore, journalists from El Periódico, José Rubén Zamora’s newspaper, are currently being investigated and accused of “disinformation” about their imprisoned publisher’s trial.

Guatemala ranks 124 on RSF Press Freedom Index. Journalists’ safety has deteriorated in Guatemala in recent years and five journalists fled the country in 2022 because of intimidation or judicial persecution.