“I think the fight against impunity in Guatemala has been important,” said Erika Aifán a long-time judge and judicial activist. “It has allowed us to grow as a country. If we accept that we have made mistakes and that we are moving forward in the processes, we can build a truly democratic country where peace and respect for the rights of citizens are generated.”
Aifán has been a judge in Guatemala for 17 years, moving through the lower courts until reaching a place on the high-risk tribunals dealing in particular with cases related to corruption and organized crime. Being a judge has made her a natural human rights defender, she said.
“Being a judge in a democratic State, I have the greatest responsibility for custody of constitutional guarantees and international standards in the field of human rights,” Aifán said. “Human rights are inherent in the dignity of the person. The truth is that in most of my career I have seen the best of human beings and the worst, but my (duty) is to preserve their dignity.”
Setback in fighting impunity
Aifán says she has been the subject of orchestrated campaigns of harassment and intimidation, in person and online, mainly due to her role as independent judge handling cases that resulted from investigations of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Attorney’s General Office. The UN-backed Commission, which began its work upon invitation of the State of Guatemala in 2007, worked with the attorney general’s office to combat criminal networks entrenched in the country after more than 30 years of civil war.
However, its operations ended on 3 September after the current government’s decision not to renew the mandate of CICIG. Aifán said that with the exit of CICIG, a backlash against judges that deal with high-impact cases, many of which result from the investigations of CICIG, has stepped up.
“They have tried to criminalize the judges with spurious complaints and initiating disciplinary proceedings,” she said. “Simultaneously, they have begun a smear campaign using social networks to generate comments of hate and discrimination against independent judges.”
Aifán says she has been the subject of sustained and virulent intimidation tactics: bullying and harassment in social media, including misogynist attacks, and has hada number of unfounded complaints against her judicial competence and numerous death threats. In fact, her position is considered so vulnerable that she has protection measures, which provide 24-hour personal armed security and perimeter security for her residence. However, Aifán pointed out this protection is not sufficient for her situation, as the order does not include a comprehensive assessment of her situation. For example, she requested cyber security measures given that many of her threats and intimidation take place online.
“I am always worried about my safety, especially when I am in Guatemala,” she said. “I have been followed when I go outside. I have had my flight details published and was photographed when I am in other countries.”
Aifán has been identified as one of the most exposed and vulnerable judges in Guatemala by UN experts. The Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice and reparation issued a letter in July to the Government, outlining allegations of attacks, intimidation and reprisals against Aifán and another judge, Pablo Xitumul.
“We would like to express our concern about the lack of guarantees that ensure independent action both at the individual level for judges and for judicial institution as well,” the Special Rapporteurs’ letter stated. “Such fragility creates barriers to access justice, truth and reparation, particularly in the cases of transitional justice, which can mean a serious setback in the fight against impunity.”
The Government provided a response letter to the allegations.
Still standing up against reprisals
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour, who heads the UN effort to combat reprisals, said on the case of Ms. Aifán that such tactics were frustrating.
“I would really urge for sake of accountability and for the sake of just generally observing the declaration of human rights defenders that people do have a right to complain,” he said.
Aifán said despite the retaliatory attacks on her integrity, the on-going online harassment, and the death threats, she continues to work as a judge, to advocate for justice and to shine a light on reprisals. Her reason is simple: she wants Guatemala to continue to move forward and end impunity for grave crimes.
“What motivates me is to know that progress can be made on the issue of human rights and we do not have to return to past practices,” she said. “Guatemala, despite all the difficulties, has been building a better justice system. As a country, we have to have the institutional will to move forward, in strengthening the justice system. I think it is possible. The day I stop believing it, is the day I stop fighting.”
Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Hear more from Erika Aifán on standing up to corruption in the video below.