Guatemala's attorney general has called for the removal of a legal mechanism that protects government officials from prosecution in what amounts to the latest attempt to chip away at the impunity enjoyed by corrupt officials and politicians.
Attorney General Thelma Aldana said the "antejuicio" -- loosely translated as "preliminary hearing" -- "should not exist in Guatemala because it is a mechanism that serves to slow down the attorney general's investigations," reported elPeriódico.
Guatemala's "Antejuicio Law" (pdf) guarantees a government official protection from being detained or subjected to judicial proceedings unless a court first approves a preliminary hearing presided over by a special commission that determines if immunity from prosecution should be lifted.
According to elPeriódico, the preliminary hearing process takes an average of 18 months to complete. Aldana lamented that the length of the process often results in the loss of evidence and the opportunity to conduct a more thorough investigation.
Aldana was speaking in response to the Guatemalan Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia – CSJ) decision on June 8 to approve a preliminary hearing against three congressional representatives implicated in fraudulent contracting.
Iván Velásquez, head of Guatemala's UN-backed anti-impunity commission (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) has also previously voiced concerns over the preliminary hearing and its contribution to impunity for Guatemalan officials.
InSight Crime Analysis
The stated intent in requiring a preliminary hearing is to shield officials from spurious or politically motivated accusations that might interfere with their work. However, by protecting politicians from prosecution, the antejuicio has helped institutionalize impunity for Guatemala's political class, incentivizing corrupt or criminal behavior.
Recently, the antejuicio has come under intense scrutiny and criticism in Guatemala, emerging as a key point of discussion during the first phase of the National Dialogue on Justice Sector Reform held from April 25 to June 3. During this phase -- a series of seven regional conferences to present proposed constitutional reforms -- calls emerged for the total elimination of the preliminary hearing. Some, however, held it should only be removed for lower-ranking officials, such as mayors and governors, but retained for the heads of Guatemala's executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Judicial Reform
Reforming the Antejuicio Law will be difficult, as it requires Guatemalan lawmakers to remove legal protections they themselves benefit from. To overcome this conflict of interest, it appears Attorney General Aldana may be seeking to pressure politicians to act by tapping into public anger over government corruption -- a key factor in the downfall of ex-President Otto Pérez Molina, who is currently in prison for allegedly running a customs fraud network after a preliminary hearing led to the removal of his immunity from prosecution.