Guatemala | False criminal complaints used to block the work of human rights defenders

26.09.2016

Spurious legal cases are being brought against human rights defenders in Guatemala to delay and stymie their work.

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(Geneva) – Human rights defender in Guatemala, Iduvina Estalinova Hernández Batres - the Executive Director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy (la Asociación para el Estudio y de la Seguridad en Democracia - SEDEM) - has once again found herself at the centre of outlandish allegations of criminal activities.

ISHR’s Training and Advocacy Support Manager, Helen Nolan, said Guatemalan courts were frequently used to hinder the work of human rights defenders.

‘It’s an old but persisting tactic of bogging your opponents down in time-consuming and expensive legal proceedings, which have the added potential of tarnishing your reputation as a defender. This has been raised by numerous UN bodies, but the Government of Guatemala has failed to do anything about it,’ said Nolan.

ISHR and its partners have previously highlighted that the criminal justice system is increasingly used to paralyse legitimate human rights activities in Guatemala. Defenders working on business and human rights are disproportionately impacted, often facing accusations of crimes such as unlawful association and conspiracy, or even wilder claims of terrorism, abduction and murder.

The Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture, the Special Rapporteur on indigenous people and the Human Rights Council have also all discussed the need for Guatemala to create a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders to carry out their work.

Hernández – who is also a journalist – works to promote oversight and accountability of security and armed forces in Guatemala. Most recently, she has been assisting the victims in a trial in which former military leaders are charged with enforced disappearance, kidnapping, torture and rape in 1981.

To her surprise, Hernández recently discovered that a daughter of one of the former military officials facing charges, Jeniffer Rosalinda Zaldaña Mazariego, had launched a criminal complaint against her falsely alleging she had received death threats from the well-respected human rights defender.

Hernández was not notified of the complaint or invited to the hearing held on 16 June 2016, where Zaldaña Mazariego was granted a restraining order for her home. The first she heard of the situation was when she was ordered to leave the courtroom during the trial against the former military leaders. As a result of the order, she would not be able to be in the courtroom if Zaldaña Mazariego is present and so would be unable to accompany and support the victim as she had been doing, or to report on events occurring in the courtroom.

‘This ludicrous claim is the latest in a series of invented allegations brought against me in the hope of preventing me from continuing my efforts to seek justice for victims of violations committed during the armed conflict. Similar false complaints were brought against me in 2011 and 2012, as again in May this year,’ said Hernández.

An array of mechanisms have been created in Guatemala to recognise and protect human rights defenders, yet none of them are currently fully functional, and Nolan said the Government should ‘work with defenders to make sure that they are safe in practice – not only on paper.’

‘In a context of total impunity, widespread corruption and a lack of judicial independence, human rights defenders are being left completely exposed’ said Nolan.

Hernández agrees, and said the Guatemalan Government also needs to review the over-burdensome and restrictive bureaucracy faced by NGOs.

‘While human rights defenders have been able to increase civil society space and deepen respect and understanding for our work, if the political system does not change, we will confront new threats and new levels of risks,’ said Hernández.

Hernández participated in ISHR's consultations in Geneva on successful strategies to protect civil society space. Read about her work and the difficulties faced by human rights defenders in Guatemala here

Category:

Region
  • Latin America and Caribbean
Topic
  • Human rights defenders
  • Women's rights and WHRD
Country
  • Guatemala