The Supreme Court in Honduras has issued a complicated ruling on the constitutionality of an independent anti-graft body that keeps the body intact, but could nonetheless undermine a key aspect of how it functions.
The decision, dated May 29, came in response to a legal challenge regarding the constitutionality of the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), a judicial support organ created by a 2016 agreement between the Honduran government and the Organization of American States.
A group of congressmen had argued that the MACCIH should be declared unconstitutional because it violated Honduras' sovereignty and the independence of the country's institutions.
The court rejected that argument, but part of its decision could affect the functions of a special unit of the Attorney General's Office known as the Special Prosecution Unit Against Impunity for Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corruption - UFECIC).
The UFECIC is the main unit that MACCIH works with in building anti-corruption cases, so the ruling restricting that collaboration could greatly complicate anti-graft efforts.
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In a series of tweets, the former head of the MACCIH, Juan Jiménez Mayor, questioned the legal logic behind the ruling.
"The decision doesn't declare the [agreement that created MACCIH] unconstitutional, but it establishes only one form of application," Jiménez Mayor wrote.
"The decision obligates the attorney general to adapt the ... UFECIC to this interpretation, restricting the mandate of the MACCIH," he continued.
But, he said, "The interpretation is based on a non-existent assumption: UFECIC does not delegate constitutional functions to MACCIH."
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It remains to be seen exactly how the Supreme Court's ruling will affect the functioning of the MACCIH, but some observers see it as another blow to the anti-graft body amid a long-running self-protection campaign by elements of Honduras' business and political elites.
Charles Call, the head of American University’s special research team on MACCIH and anti-impunity efforts in Honduras, told InSight Crime that the decision is a “backdoor way to undermine MACCIH,” which has “been very seriously wounded by this ruling.”
The ruling gives the public appearance of having protected the anti-graft body from a legal attack, likely in an attempt to quell concerns from the international community and Honduran civil society. But in reality, it threatens the existence and functioning of UFECIC, which allows for real coordination between MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office.
In recent months, Call said, elites “have really had it out to defang MACCIH” because the body began moving forward with “sensitive cases that have had political repercussions,” including an embezzlement scheme implicating dozens of members of Congress. With the court’s ruling, “they found a clever way" to accomplish that goal, he said.
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Gabriela Blen, a prominent Honduran anti-corruption activist and head of an advocacy group focused on transparency and justice issues, told InSight Crime that the MACCIH could face threats beyond the recent Supreme Court decision.
In particular, Blen said, the upcoming selection of the country’s next attorney general will be “decisive” in determining the future of Honduras' struggle to root out graft.
“If the MACCIH continues in Honduras but the Attorney General’s Office does not collaborate, the MACCIH will not be able do anything,” Blen said.
She added that a new attorney general could choose to directly dismantle the UFECIC, even though the recent ruling does not. The new attorney general could also selectively throw out cases targeting powerful individuals.
Blen and Call both emphasized that ongoing pressure from civil society and the international community will be key in the coming months because the Supreme Court decision represents just one in a series of attacks against anti-corruption efforts that have seemed to gain momentum in recent months.