On July 8, 2022, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) issued a resolution ordering the State of Guatemala to adopt urgent measures to protect the physical integrity of Miguel Ángel Gálvez, the pretrial judge in the Diario Militar case, and to guarantee his ability to perform his judicial duties free of external pressure. Judge Gálvez has faced attacks and lawsuits from pro-military actors, especially after his May 6, 2022 ruling in the case, in which he ordered nine retired military and police officials to trial.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an urgent ruling for urgent protection measures as part of its mandate to monitor the 2012 judgment issued in the Diario Militar case (Gudiel Alvarez y otros vs Guatemala). In the 2012 judgment, the Inter-American Court found the State of Guatemala responsible for multiple cases of illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial execution and forced disappearance between 1983 and 1985 that are recorded in the military intelligence document known as the “Death Squad Dossier” or “Military Diary.” At that time, the Court ordered Guatemala to investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for the human rights violations recorded in the document, along with other measures to provide reparations to the families of the victims.
Nine years later, on May 27, 2021, eleven retired military and former police officers accused in the case were detained. Since then, four others have been arrested. On May 6th of this year, Judge Galvez ordered that the first nine defendants be tried by a sentencing court. We analyzed the judge’s ruling and the campaign of defamation and criminalization in a recent article for El Faro. Before the case can go to trial, the judge must hold admission of evidence hearings. The evidentiary phase hearings for the remaining five defendants are also pending. Regarding these five defendants, two were among the original eleven arrested in May 2021, but the judge removed them from the intermediate phase hearings concluded on May 6th because their lawyers excused themselves at the last minute. The other three were captured between January and May 2022.
Some of the military personnel facing charges in the case are alleged to have close connections to current criminal structures. We analyzed these connections in this article, also published in El Faro.
The Inter-American Court ruling granting urgent measures to Judge Gálvez analyzes the broader context of criminalization and stigmatization of judges, magistrates and others involved in the judicial system in Guatemala over the last year. It points out the improper use of impeachment (antejuicio) as a mechanism to intimidate, threaten and eventually remove judges and magistrates from their positions.
The IACHR notes that Judge Gálvez has endured a series of threats, acts of intimidation and surveillance, which increased exponentially in the context of the arrests of May 2021 and especially after his May 6, 2022 decision ordering the first nine defendants to trial in the Military Diary case.
Of special concern was the request filed just a few days after the judge’s ruling, on May 11th by the Foundation against Terrorism seeking Judge Gálvez’s impeachment, and the fact that the Supreme Court of Justice resolved by majority to admit the petition in record time, just four days later. The IACHR Court points out that, if the Supreme Court decides to lift Judge Gálvez’s immunity, this would likely result in his removal from the Military Diary case, which would seriously affect the victims’ right to justice.
The IACHR also notes that judicial independence is one of the basic pillars of the guarantee of due process, noting that “when the tenure of judges is arbitrarily affected, the right to judicial independence enshrined in Article 8(1) of the Convention is violated”. The IACHR clarifies the importance of these guarantees for the proper functioning of the rule of law:
“The purpose of the protection lies in preventing the judicial system, in general, and its members, in particular, from being subjected to possible undue restrictions in the exercise of their function by bodies outside the Judiciary, or even by those exercising review or appellate functions… The Court has indicated that the following guarantees are derived from judicial independence with respect to the function of judicial authorities: (i) to an adequate appointment process; (ii) to stability and irremovability in office, and (iii) to be protected against external pressures.”
The Court’s judgment orders the State of Guatemala to adopt three urgent measures:
These steps are essential for the completion of the intermediate phase of the Military Diary trial. While Judge Gálvez determined that there was sufficient evidence to send the first nine defendants to trial, he must complete the admission of evidence, which is required before the case can be sent to the trial court. In addition, he must convene evidentiary phase hearings for the remaining five defendants to determine if they should also be sent to trial.
Among these remaining five defendants is the last person arrested in the case, Toribio Ramírez Acevedo, who, according to the press release issued by Cementos Progreso after his capture, worked in enterprises associated with the cement company. Ramírez, who has been implicated in organizing illegal security structures related to the company, was reportedly a member of the Presidential General Staff at the time of the crimes recorded in the Military Diary.
The recently initiated impeachment process against Judge Gálvez makes the next phase of the Military Diary trial extremely difficult. Moreover, independent legal observers consider the accusations against Judge Gálvez to be spurious and lacking any real legal basis.
Alejandro Rodríguez, a lawyer with Impunity Watch, declared that the fact that the impeachment request includes a series of cases that were not adjudicated by Judge Galvez and yet he is the only judge who faces the possibility of losing his immunity demonstrates that these are political charges. “If the charges had any merit, the judges in these cases should also face consequences, but that is not the case. Only Judge Gálvez is being criminalized,” says Rodríguez.
Zoel Franco, from the Institute of Comparative Studies in Criminal Sciences, noted that the impeachment proceedings against Gálvez are taking place in a broader context of systematic persecution against justices who have heard cases involving politicians, government officials and military officers.
It is worth noting that the resolutions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights are binding because the State of Guatemala signed the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969. In addition, Guatemalan courts have handed down ample jurisprudence establishing that the sentences and resolutions of the IACHR are self-executing.
The Inter-American Court ordered the State of Guatemala to inform the Court no later than August 8, 2022 regarding the measures to comply with its resolution in the Military Diary case. If Guatemala does not comply with the Court’s resolutions, the country would be in violation t of its international obligations, which could have serious consequences at the international level.
Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, who is the president of the Foundation Against Terrorism and who was singled out as a corrupt and anti-democratic actor by the U.S. government last year, has publicly led the campaign against Judge Galvez. Especially since the judge’s May 6th ruling in the Military Diary case, Méndez Ruiz frequently posts defamatory and intimidating messages on Twitter and has filed several lawsuits against the judge.
Even after the Inter-American Court ordered urgent measures to protect Gálvez and his work as a judge, Méndez Ruiz remained defiant, issuing this menacing warning:
“It doesn’t matter that the @CorteIDH manages to get more bodyguards assigned to Miguel Ángel Gálvez; they are not going to prevent the civil death of that prevaricator. Besides, nowhere will he be safer than in a dungeon in Matamoros, where the @FCTGuatemala will get him sent.”
The defiance of the pro-military alliance has been evident in other ways as well. On July 11th,, a group of deputies presented a legislative proposal called “Strengthening the Peace.”This bill seeks to end all criminal prosecutions for serious human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict, by means of a general amnesty. The beneficiaries of this legislation would be members of the Guatemalan Army, other state security forces, and members of subversive groups.
A similar bill failed to pass in 2019, after international and domestic denunciations of the bill for violating the rights of victims of the internal armed conflict, and rulings by the Inter-American Court and Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ordering Congress to shelve the bill because it breached international and domestic law.
The systematic attacks directed against Judge Miguel Angel Galvez are not isolated incidents. On June 30, Attorney General Consuelo Porras illegally notified several career prosecutors that their contracts would be terminated because she no longer found them “trustworthy.”
Among those dismissed was Hilda Pineda, who worked for 10 years in the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office and who was its head between 2016 and 2021, until she was suddenly transferred to the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Foreign Tourists. Pineda participated in and/or led the investigations in the Mayan Ixil genocide case, the Spanish Embassy massacre, the Sepur Zarco sexual violence case, the Molina Theissen case, the massive forced disappearance case known as CREOMPAZ, and the Military Diary case, among others.
In mid-June 2022, prosecutor Elena Sut was unofficially informed that by order of the Attorney General, she would be transferred from the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, where she has worked since 2013, to another undetermined unit. As a prosecutor working in the Section of Special Cases of the Internal Armed Conflict, Sut participated and/or led investigations of retired military officials accused of crimes against humanity, among them, the CREOMPAZ case and more recently, the Military Diary case. The attacks against her increased after June 8th, when the National Office for the Prevention of Torture filed a complaint against Sut and former attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz.
On July 11th, the Inter-American Court granted “urgent measures” in favor of prosecutor Sut and her family due to the attacks and threats she has received for her work in the Military Diary case and other cases of the internal armed conflict.
In the meantime, as these threats to judicial independence in Guatemala grow more serious, the families of the victims of the Military Diary continue to wait to have their day in court.
Jo-Marie Burt is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Paulo Estrada is a human rights defender. They are co-founders and co-directors of Verdad y Justicia en Guatemala, which monitors and reports on war crimes prosecutions in Guatemala.
This article was originally published in Spanish by Agencia Ocote.