HAVANA TIMES – What began on May 2 as a political trial without the minimum guarantees for the accused journalist ended on June 14 in Guatemala with the sentencing of Jose Ruben Zamora to six years in prison. The outcome is an embarrassment for the courts of that country, another testimony of the murky mechanisms of power that move within and around the country’s institutions, and a strong blow to freedom of expression and the weakened democracy.
The process against Zamora had, from the beginning, all the signs of a frame-up, and this became more and more evident as it progressed until the conviction. Far from charging him with alleged crimes related to journalism, which could never have been sustained, Zamora was accused of money laundering, blackmail, and influence peddling. These are criminal charges that, by their mere allegation, were destined to discredit him and equate him with other types of criminals who, paradoxically, tend to enjoy impunity within Guatemala’s decaying judicial system.
Under these circumstances, the trial began on May 2 and concluded on June 14. In the meantime, on May 15th, elPeriódico ceased publication and Guatemala lost a clear journalistic voice. The prosecution requested the absurd sentence of 40 years in prison for the three crimes attributed to Zamora. In the end, those of blackmail and influence peddling were dismissed by the court, and the conviction was based exclusively on money laundering.
Obviously, the whole thing was a set-up. Its immediate objective was to exercise a vendetta against a journalist and a media characterized for denouncing the corruption of President Alejandro Giammattei and several associates. However, the purpose goes much further: to intimidate all those who, from various media, exercise freedom of expression with courage and responsibility.
Since September 2019, when then-President Jimmy Morales managed to eliminate the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), created by an agreement between the Guatemalan State and the United Nations, the deterioration of justice has been continuous. This commission was able to train multiple Attorney General’s Office officials and document a series of investigations that led to high-impact judicial convictions. But precisely because of its successes, it faced increasing pressure from multiple levels of power, formal and informal, until its demise.
While there are still independent judicial officials in the country, they are increasingly fewer, and more persecuted. Several prosecutors have had to go into exile due to death threats or spurious charges. And, as usual, attacks against the independent judiciary and press have gone hand in hand.
Under these circumstances, elections were held in Guatemala on May 18th. The list of candidates was severely decimated by decisions of electoral and judicial authorities, many of them without adequate grounds. Among those remaining, none had enough support to win without a runoff. But, regardless of who becomes president, the institutional deterioration of the country will hardly stop. It is time to lament but also to not let up on the efforts in favor of democracy in Guatemala.
*First published by La Nación de Costa Rica.