GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has been praised internationally as an advocate for human rights and the rule of law. At home, though, she’s facing stiff opposition from conservative elements of Guatemalan society who are uncomfortable with her campaign for human rights.
Those conservative critics have brought about a legal debate in the nation’s highest court, which has provisionally ordered she leave office six months early.
Ricardo Sagastume, a businessman and attorney, brought a suit over the length of Paz y Paz’s term to the Constitutional Court in early February. At issue is whether Paz y Paz is finishing a four-year term begun by her predecessor (who the court disqualified six months into his term), or is completing her own four-year term.
The legal debate has centered on whether the Guatemalan Constitution stipulates a four-year term for the person or the office.
Paz y Paz’s term limit is not only a legal issue, however; it is also deeply political. When the court issued its provisional ruling in early February indicating Paz y Paz had to leave office in May, human rights groups and international observers quickly reacted with critical statements.
“In the blink of an eye, the Constitutional Court has chosen to protect impunity over justice. That the Constitutional Court would ignore its own precedent and rule against a noted human rights defender speaks to its lack of impartiality and independence,” Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, said in a statement.
U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Arnold Chacon also has voiced support for the attorney general, as has Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Foundation, among others.
“The way this thing has gone down makes it hard to be optimistic,” Daniel Wilkinson, managing director for the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said. “If Paz y Paz is replaced by someone who does not share this commitment to human rights, … the Ríos Montt case will not go anywhere.”
The genocide prosecution and conviction of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt is a feather in the cap of Paz y Paz, despite the fact that the Constitutional Court overturned the conviction in less than two weeks. The conviction marked the first time that a former dictator was convicted in his own country for the crime of genocide.
Since then, the rumor mill in Guatemala has been turning nonstop, with both progressive and conservative groups claiming the Constitutional Court is being manipulated. Human rights organizations point to the business community and former military personnel as being behind the move to remove Paz y Paz, while conservatives believe she is being propped up by pressure asserted by international actors, and that she is a tool of leftist organizations.
“Just because you say you’re a human rights advocate doesn’t mean you’re not the representative of a repressive state,” Steve Hecht, a representative of the extreme right group “League for the Nation,” said.
The suspicions of the right were pilloried in a Feb. 18 Prensa Libre column by Marielos Monzón titled – in English – “Yankees Go Home.”
“During the trial for genocide, and recently, with the the Constitutional Court’s resolution by which Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term was shortened, various voices have been heard – including some with foreign accents – that condemn foreign meddling in affairs that only Guatemalans are competent in,” the column stated. “It would not be strange that this happened except that these same people have ferociously applauded foreign intervention and have benefited from it. In 1954, when the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was overthrown, foreigners were their allies.”
Monzón brought her column to a close with biting wit: “Now that international officials, including some ambassadors, are determining what they consider violations of human rights and threats to democracy, institutions and rule of law, they [conservative critics] leave brandishing the flag of sovereignty and national dignity.”
Yet not all conservatives are aligned against Paz y Paz. Many admit that she is a competent public prosecutor, and she is credited with reducing impunity in Guatemala from 95 percent in 2009 to 72 percent in 2012.
A final round of public statements is expected on Feb. 26, when the court will issue a final ruling. Yet even if the court does decide her term is over in May, Paz y Paz has left the option of re-election on the table.