The attorney general of Honduras and a prominent civil society group have launched legal challenges against a recent legislative reform denounced by critics as an "impunity pact," highlighting rising tensions between anti-corruption advocates and entrenched elites in the turmoil-stricken Central American nation.
The Honduran Attorney General’s Office has appealed the constitutionality of a reform to the General Budget Law, El Heraldo reported on February 2. The non-governmental Association for a More Just Society (Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa - ASJ) also appealed the reform.
The reform in question, passed by congress on January 18, establishes a period of up to three years for the Superior Accounts Tribunal (Tribunal Superior de Cuentas – TSC) to conduct an audit into suspected instances of misspending of public funds.
During that time period, individuals suspected of wrongdoing could not be prosecuted by judicial authorities, effectively preventing the Attorney General's Office from pursuing corruption-related cases. The reform applies retroactively to all such cases since 2006.
Critics denounced the move by congress as an attempt to interfere with the anti-graft efforts of the Attorney General's Office, which is being aided by a body backed by the Organization of American States (OAS) known as the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH).
MACCIH head Juan Jiménez Mayor recently described the reform as an “impunity pact,” and questioned its timing, since it was approved as the MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into a possible systematic embezzlement scheme involving 60 congressmen and up to 1.3 billion lempiras ($55 million).
The top US diplomat in Honduras, Heide Fulton, also criticized the reform, calling it a “monumental step backward in the fight against corruption.”
The Attorney General's Office is arguing that the reform violates constitutional principles protecting the separation of government powers because it transfers law enforcement responsibilities from the judicial branch to the executive, among other things. ASJ argues that it contravenes the principle of citizens' equality before the law.
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The legal challenges underscore a widening rift between entrenched elites and supporters of anti-graft initiatives in Honduras. Mirroring a pattern seen across the region -- perhaps most prominently in Guatemala and Brazil -- Honduran elites have responded to mounting corruption investigations by fighting back.
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The outcome of the appeals could have significant implications. The upholding of the legal reform would hack away at MACCIH’s credibility -- already weakened in the wake of Hernández's much-contested reelection -- and would effectively block the Attorney General’s Office from moving forward on corruption cases.
Even if the reform is struck down, the congress would have another opportunity to attempt to derail the anti-graft efforts, as it is set is set to elect a new attorney general in August 2018. Given that the legislature is dominated by Hernández's National Party, many of whose members are under suspicion of corruption, it is likely that they will try to select a candidate who will be disinclined to continue his predecessor’s campaign against crooked elites.
* Parker Asmann contributed reporting to this article.