Indigenous Authorities, Political Prisoners, Defenders of Life
The Trail and the Verdict
On Friday July 22, 2016, the High Risk Court A tribunal comprised of judges Yassmín Barrios, Patricia Bustamante, and Gerbi Sical, issued its sentence in a split decision, to free all seven Indigenous political prisoners!
The tribunal ruled that ancestral authorities Rigoberto Juárez, Ermitaño López Reyes, Domingo Baltazar, Sotero Adalberto Villatoro, Arturo Pablo Juan, Francisco Juan Pedro and Mynor López would be released immediately. Five of the seven Indigenous authorities were acquitted of all charges, but Rigoberto Juárez was sentenced to six months in prison for coercion and Ermitaño López to three years in prison for obstructing justice, in a decision which judge Yassmin Barrios did not agree with, stating to Rigoberto and Ermitaño during the reading of the verdict that “I believe in your innocence.” Both Rigoberto and Ermitaño were released though immediately due to time already served in pretrial detention.
The seven indigenous authorities were charged with crimes ranging from instigating to commit a crime, illegal detention, coercion, and obstruction of criminal proceedings. National and international institutions described the arbitrary arrests, incarceration, and legal proceedings as politically motivated persecution in an attempt to criminalize dissent.
The historic nature of the trial was outlined in the various expert testimonies, ranging from the final statements from the defense attorneys, and to the emphatic voice of justice from judge Yassmín Barrios while she read the verdict. What made the trial particularly unique was the inclusion of such expert testimonies as that of sociologist Gladys Tzul Tzul, anthropologist Santiago Bastos, and attorney Ramón Cadena, among others. Using expert testimony of this nature as evidence has only recently become a practice, making the testimonies themselves historically significant.
Santiago Bastos’ report that was presented as evidence during the trial, concluded that the ancestral authorities became the focal point of a strategy of persecution and criminalization of social protest by the companies involved and the government. Many of the expert witness’ testimonies strengthened the defenses’ thesis that the lack of substantial evidence in the cases pointed to corruption and impunity on part of the government.
Judge Yassmín Barrios’ words touched an already emotional room full of supporters as she read her sentence. Her recognition of pluriculture and pluriethnicity set a context for understanding the role of ancestral authorities as protectors of the community. Asserting that the state has not understood the existence and role of ancestral authorities, who constitute a positive element for Indigenous communities.
Gracefully and humbly, many of the former political prisoners have stated that their time in prison, though harsh at times, was a learning experience. Emphasizing that the seven ancestral authorities were unjustly arrested for defending life, Ermitaño López stated that “for us, it is of great satisfaction to be free today, and to be able to demonstrate not only to our people, our communities, and to the entire country of how we have been criminalized. We have proven to all people that we can continue to fight when we are united.”
Since early 2012, the leadership of the Plurinational Government had been the target of a campaign of criminalization, by powerful and corrupt companies and government officials. This specious misuse of the legal system to silence legitimate social protest and concerns is unfortunately not limited to this case, to Guatemala, or even the region as a whole, but is a worldwide phenomenon that is gaining steam.
The July 22nd verdict is a great day for justice, the rule of law, and for the right of Indigenous communities in Guatemala. It is also a clear example that criminalization cases can be won when national and international supporters come together, bear witness, and fight these injustices.
The GHRC Team
3321 12th Street NE, Washington, DC 20017