Guatemala’s outgoing attorney general sees progress on rights

GUATEMALA CITY, (Reuters) – Guatemala’s attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz, who earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination last year for her crusade to prosecute those accused of civil war-era abuses, sees progress for human rights as she leaves office but says major problems remain.

Paz y Paz tried former police chiefs and retired military leaders accused of atrocities during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war, which pitted leftist guerrillas against right-wing governments and claimed as many as 250,000 lives.

“After many years, there have been advances,” Paz y Paz told Reuters in an interview. “You can’t commit murders, torture, genocide nor forced disappearances, and with these sentences you prevent the possibility of this happening in future.”

Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the Americas, but it has fallen slightly during her tenure.

Entering her last week in the job, Paz y Paz says the Central American nation must reform its appeals process to speed up judicial proceedings and guarantee justice for victims.

Injunctions and appeals can pass through up to three different courts during indictment and trial proceedings, stalling criminal cases for years.

In May 2013, ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the bloodiest phase of the civil war.

But the trial was held up for over a year while defense attorneys lodged appeals and injunctions. Then, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned his conviction 10 days after sentencing, citing procedural errors committed during the trial.

“We’ve created a culture where everything can be appealed,” Paz y Paz said. “This delays justice and overloads courts.”

Rios Montt, 87, is under house arrest awaiting a re-trial. That could start as soon as January 2015, Paz y Paz said.

The 47-year-old Paz y Paz has overhauled investigation techniques and broke the attorney general’s office into units of investigators and litigators, allowing each group to specialize in specific areas of the criminal process.

On her watch, some of the nation’s top drug kingpins with alleged ties to powerful Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas gangs have been arrested and extradited to the United States where they face charges of drug trafficking.

Paz y Paz was appointed in December 2010 by former leftist president Alvaro Colom to a four-year term following a previous appointee who was fired after just a month in the job. She had hoped for another stint, but local politics has kept her out.

Announcing her bid for re-election in March, Paz y Paz was assessed by the selection committee that appoints the attorney general and received the second-highest score out of 26 candidates based on work experience and a series of tests.

But last week she was left off a shortlist of six finalists from which President Otto Perez will select her replacement, and the committee has not explained why.

“The fact she was excluded despite having the second-highest score does very serious damage to the credibility of the justice system and these selection committees,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch.

The diminutive and soft-spoken Paz y Paz, whose surname literally translates to Peace and Peace, says she will likely return to academia.

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