By ELISABETH MALKIN on February 6, 2014—
“Guatemalan politics were thrown into disarray on Thursday after the country’s highest court ruled that the crusading attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, must step down in May, seven months before her four-year term was to end.
The ruling on Wednesday by the Constitutional Court was condemned by local and international human rights organizations, who said it was a victory for groups that opposed Ms. Paz y Paz’s dogged prosecutions of organized crime and of retired military officers accused of rights violations, including the former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt.
Congress met Thursday to begin the process of choosing the next attorney general, but failed to muster a quorum. In a sign of political battles to come over the complex selection process, more than a third of the legislators did not turn up to vote.
Ms. Paz y Paz also filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court, although she was asking the same judges who had cut short her tenure to reverse their decision. Since she was appointed in December 2010, she has worked to reverse a tradition of impunity in Guatemala, which is besieged by drug trafficking, corruption and other crimes. She has been helped by a special United Nations commission of international prosecutors. At the same time, President Otto Pérez Molina has increased her budget and allowed her to work unimpeded.
“There is a sense that Guatemala could be starting to turn the corner,” said Daniel Wilkinson, a Guatemala expert at Human Rights Watch. But if the court upholds its ruling, “what would happen is that you would see any sort of progress come to a halt.”
Under Ms. Paz y Paz’s watch, Guatemala has taken the first steps to dismantle drug-trafficking organizations and extradite their leaders to the United States. Her office has also stepped up prosecutions of common crime and placed new emphasis on solving crimes against women.
The United Nations commission, known by its Spanish acronym Cicig, said Thursday that it was concerned that the decision could mean that several joint investigations would not be completed. The United States ambassador, Arnold Chacón, issued a statement describing Ms. Paz y Paz as an example of an “honest, capable public servant of integrity” and said it was a privilege for the United States government to have a partner like her.
Ms. Paz y Paz’s most notable prosecution was the genocide trial of Mr. Ríos Montt, 87, who was accused of responsibility for crimes against humanity committed during the army’s scorched-earth campaign against the Maya Ixil ethnic group in 1982 and 1983. A three-judge panel found him guilty last May, but the Constitutional Court later threw out the conviction and part of the testimony. A new trial is scheduled to begin next January.
The court’s decision to shorten Ms. Paz y Paz’s term began with a constitutional challenge brought by a wealthy businessman, Ricardo Sagastume. The ruling was based on a technical reading of Ms. Paz y Paz’s appointment because she was selected after another attorney general was removed.
“This is evidence that the court is under the power of entrenched powers from the private sector and the extreme right,” said Helen Mack, a prominent human rights advocate in Guatemala.
Ms. Mack linked their haste to see Ms. Paz y Paz leave to elections next year. “Her independence and impartiality become a threat to politicians in an election year,” she said.
Ms. Paz y Paz also suggested that the ruling was not merely technical. “Sectors that have been affected by the advance of justice are in a hurry to see me leave the job,” she said Wednesday, according to the newspaper El Periódico.”
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