Court hearing on Guatemala’s attorney general draws hundreds

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 26, 2014 

WORLD NEWS PROSECUTOR MCT

Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz works in her office Feb. 13, 2014 in the Public Ministry, Guatemala City, Guatemala.

BENJAMIN REEVES — MCT

— Hundreds of supporters of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz rallied outside Guatemala’s highest court Wednesday as the justices inside heard final arguments on whether the human rights champion should be allowed to stay in office until December or be forced to step down in May.

The legal issues surrounding whether Paz y Paz is entitled to serve a complete four-year term or must step down when the term of the man she replaced would have ended are complicated. The Constitutional Court, in a decision earlier this month, ruled preliminarily that her appointment was legally flawed and that the shorter term was in order.

But the case is also tied up with the bitter, lingering politics of Guatemala’s three-decades-long civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Paz y Paz became a divisive figure because of her prosecution of human rights cases stemming from that war, including the genocide conviction of former President Efrain Rios Montt, which the Constitutional Court threw out less than two weeks after it was delivered.

After hearing the final arguments, the court said it would review the evidence and issue its ruling next week. But there were few in the crowd who were likely to accept anything but a victory for Paz y Paz.

“We are here to learn why the Constitutional Court ruled in contradiction of the constitution,” said Sandra Moran, the organizer of a women’s group in a typical comment.

Said Daniel Pascual, a leader of a leftist indigenous rights organization, the United Peasants Committee: “The rule of law is in danger.”

“I’ve been looking for [my brother] for 25 years,” said Marilena Bustamante, whose brother, Emil, a veterinarian, was working with peasant groups when he vanished during Rios Montt’s administration in the early 1980s. She said she saw coming to hear the arguments as “fortifying the system of justice in Guatemala.”

Nearby, indigenous Mayan women had spread a carpet of flowers and pine needles. A small religious offering burned in an urn nearby.

Inside the court, the attorney and businessman who brought the suit to end Paz y Paz’s term, Ricardo Sagastume, paced as he waited to speak. He called his lawsuit a “civic act” and said he was trying to correct an error that had been made in the 2010 process that resulted in Paz y Paz’s appointment.

“We have most clearly … recognized that authorities are not above the law,” Sagastume said.

Paz y Paz responded in careful, measured sentences that the constitution “legally specifies a complete term of four years, not a day more … or a day less.”

“It’s important to the independence of the justice system” that the attorney general receive a full four year term in which to work, she said.

After the statements, Sagastume said that he felt “secure” that “the court was convinced to make a correct decision” in accordance to his argument.

Reeves is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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