Impunity Watch and partners host webinar to explore the future of courts in Guatemala  

Impunity Watch, Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and Alliance for Reforms hosted a webinar on the election process of Guatemala’s Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals on 13 May 2020. The webinar, which was attended by more than 150 participants, aimed to contribute to the national debate over this crucial process within the Guatemalan justice system.

The afore-mentioned elections have been delayed for more than six months now due to multiple irregularities in the process. Normally, the National Congress is in charge of the election of the magistrates for the high courts in Guatemala based on a list of candidates identified by a nomination commission. However, an investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office revealed secret meetings and illegal negotiations were held to influence the election process. This has become known as the “parallel commissions 2020” case in which deputies, members of nomination commissions, candidates, and an imprisoned powerful former Guatemalan official accused of corruption are implicated. The latter has been seeking impunity.

Hosted on Zoom, the discussion was also broadcasted live on the social media channels of the Information Network Against Impunity in Guatemala (RICIG). Speakers included Former Magistrate from the Courts of Appeals of Guatemala Claudia Escobar, President of the Guatemalan Association of Judges for Integrity (AGJI) Carlos Ruano, Former Member of the Nomination Commission for the Election of the Court of Appeals Verónica Ponce, Director of the Alliance for Reforms Elvyn Díaz, and Impunity Watch’s Coordinator of the Justice Programme in Guatemala José González. Úrsula Indacochea from DPLF moderated the discussion.

The speakers reflected on the serious problems and shortcomings of the existing system for the appointment of magistrates. As seen throughout numerous processes, this Guatemalan model allows and encourages political and illegal power groups to unduly influence the process through secret negotiations and influence peddling. Speakers commended the judgement issued by the Constitutional Court in May 2020 regarding the establishment of exceptional proceedings for the Congress to evaluate the ethical behaviour of the nominees and avoid nominating doubtful figures. The panellists considered the judgement a step forward to ensure the legitimacy of the process and to restore public trust in the new judicial authorities.

The panellists also called for an urgent change in the regulatory framework of the appointment proceedings; including all relevant constitutional dispositions. Their proposed model suggests prolonging the period of the magistrates’ appointment to at least 10 to 12 years, versus the existing five-year-mandate; in addition to avoiding the simultaneous change of all magistrates at the Appealing Court and at the Supreme Court of Justice. The basis of the new appointing model would be to implement a functional judicial career system.

You can watch the webinar here

Background

In Guatemala, the magistrates of the Supreme Court and the Appealing Court are elected and appointed every five years throughout a two-phased process. First, two Nominating Commissions from the Supreme Court and the Appealing court identify a list of eligible candidates. Second, Congress votes and appoints the magistrates.

Both Commissions consist of 37

members including current Supreme

Court magistrates, the deans of all

Guatemalan law schools, representatives

of the Guatemalan Bar Association and

representatives of the magistrates of the

Appealing Court.  The Commissions

receive and evaluate the resumes and

documentations submitted by private

attorneys, judges and magistrates who

aspire to be appointed as magistrates.

The Commissions must set the ideal

profile for candidates as well as receive

complaints from civil society about

unsuitable candidates. The Commissions

then identify a list of “eligible candidates” and send it to Congress. Congress votes and appoints 145 magistrates for the Appealing Court magistrates and 13 judges for the Supreme Court.

The current appointment process should have ended by 13 October 2019. However, serious irregularities have kept it ongoing. The Constitutional Court suspended the process for the first time on 16 September 2019 due to errors in the formation of the Commission in charge of selecting the candidates of the Supreme Court. In addition, the Judicial Career Council had not carried out evaluations of the judges and magistrates. The process was resumed on 6 January 2020 after a hasty and superficial evaluation of candidates.

On 26 February 2020, the process was suspended again after investigations revealed secret meetings and negotiations between Former Private Secretary of the Presidency Gustavo Alejos, accused in five corruption cases, and members of the commissions, judges, magistrates, lawyers and Congressmen to ensure the appointing of certain candidates through influence peddling. As a result of these investigations, conducted by the Head of the Special Prosecution Office against Impunity Juan Francisco Sandoval, the General Attorney and some NGOs filed constitutional complains to stop the Guatemalan Congress from appointing candidates nominated by the Commissions through influence peddling.  On 6 May 2020, the Constitutional Court issued its judgement establishing exceptional proceedings for the Congress to evaluate the ethical behaviour of candidates. 

Impunity Watch’s role

Impunity Watch has systematically monitored the court election process since August 2019, since this process is crucial to ensure judicial independence and to continue the fight against impunity. Historically, this election has been controlled by power groups and criminal networks that seek impunity. It is important to remember that the appointed courts will hear in second instance the most relevant cases of corruption investigated by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the cases of gross human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict. In these cases, important judgments have been obtained against powerful former officials and businessmen implicated in corruption as well as against former military personnel responsible for the atrocities committed in the past. There is a serious risk that the newly-appointed courts will reverse these important sentences.

Impunity Watch is keen about this election process because the elected judges and magistrates can play an important role in guaranteeing access to justice to victims of gross human rights violations; particularly women and indigenous peoples, rather than adhering to the demands of the people in power. The justice system must be independent and equal for all.

For more information about this process and other issues related to judicial independence in Guatemala, please visit the Observatory of Judicial Independence website (in Spanish), run by our Guatemala team. www.independenciajudicial.org