Guatemalan Court Ruling on Attorney General’s Term Undermines Rule of Law

NEW YORK—A ruling by Guatemala’s constitutional court that cuts short the term of the country’s attorney general jeopardizes the country’s decades-long transition to constitutional democracy, the Open Society Justice Initiative said today.

Claudia Paz y Paz was appointed attorney general in December 2010 for a full period of four years, but the court’s decision calls for her term to end this May. Guatemala’s constitution (Article 251) states that the attorney general’s term will last for four years and that she can only be removed from office by the president for “duly established cause.”

The constitutional court decision relied on 20-year-old transitional provisions of the country’s constitution, and was issued following a challenge lodged by a Guatemalan businessman. In its brief decision, the constitutional court did not elaborate why these provisions are relevant here, beyond that initial transition period.

Last year, two internal legal opinions solicited by the Presidency of the Supreme Court on this question found clearly that the attorney general’s term goes through to December.

“We are deeply troubled by this ruling. It stands as a direct affront to the rule of law,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “The independence of the attorney general must be preserved in order to make any progress in the fight against impunity in Guatemala and elsewhere.”

In a report issued last week in Guatemala [download PDF], the Inter-American Commission highlighted that “for effective access to justice to be guaranteed, then justice operators must be able to discharge their functions independently.” Prosecutors must be able to perform autonomously and without undue interference or fear of retaliation for their actions. International law further requires that judicial decisions be well-founded.

If confirmed as final, the constitutional court’s decision will lead to termination seven months early of the term of a strong, independent attorney general who has been a force for justice in Guatemala. During her term, Paz y Paz successfully brought about reforms of the court system that have strengthened its ability to deal with corruption and major crimes, including last year’s prosecution for genocide of the country’s former military ruler, Efrain Rios Montt.

The ruling also threatens the independence of the office of the attorney general and suggests that reform efforts may be met with retaliation.