GENEVA (1 July 2021) –UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego García-Sayán, today urged Guatemalan authorities to tighten protection for the country’s judiciary and civil servants after one senior judge tasked with hearing cases brought against top government officials indicated he had been threatened and followed by unknown individuals.
“I am very worried about a number of recent actions aimed at weakening the rule of law and judicial independence in Guatemala,” said the UN human rights expert.
“The criminal law is being abused to target civil servants and justice officials, the very people who protect and guarantee human rights, who are strengthening the rule of law and making great strides in the fight against impunity in the country,” he said.
“I remind Guatemala of its obligation to promptly investigate acts of harassment or threats against judges.”
Judges Yassmín Barrios, Miguel Gálvez, Erika Aifán and Pablo Xitumul submitted a complaint to the public prosecutor's office on 21 June, saying they were under increased surveillance and harassed.
The four judges try high-profile cases involving past or current government officials, high powered gang members, and members of the military or paramilitary organizations. The special courts have sentenced senior officials such as former President Efrain Rios Montt.
The courts were established to help strengthen independence of the Guatemalan judiciary and to combat corruption; judges assigned to them are considered highly competent.
The four face more than 30 criminal charges, some of them several years old. They have asked the General Prosecutor to dismiss any spurious or ill-founded complaints lodged in retaliation for carrying out their official duties with independence. “It is clear that many of these cases, even if they are frivolous, are being dragged out in order to exert pressure on judges,” said García-Sayán.
The UN expert also expressed alarm at decisions of the Constitutional Court to lift immunity that had shielded judges Aifán and Xitumul against prosecution in separate cases against them.
“Guatemala must immediately stop abusing the law to harass judges,” said the independent expert. “If this highly disturbing trend continues, prosecutors, attorneys and witnesses in cases related to the fight against corruption or transitional justice may also come under threat.”
Mr. Diego García-Sayán took up his functions as UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers in December 2016. He was formerly a judge of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for two consecutive terms. During his tenure, he was elected Vice-President of the Court (2008-2009) and President of the Court for two consecutive terms (2009-2013). He has long-standing experience working on human rights issues in a variety of settings, including for the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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