Monday, January 18, 2016

To court again, we hope

One of the strategies that the Guatemalan government has used to keep the leaders of the movements for defense of life, water and territory locked up is that of endless delays and postponements. The first court hearing I attended during this trip, the day after I arrived, did not take place because the defendant was in Huehuetenango, the trial was taking place in Guatemala City, and the penitentiary system could not manage, so they said, to find a way of transporting the defendant to appear at his trial. Other scheduled hearings, in the many cases that are torturously making their way through the justice system here, have been canceled or postponed because the MP (Ministerio Público, the prosecutors) were not ready, or asked for an extension to collect more evidence or conduct investigations, or because the plaintiffs in the case could not make it, or the other side simply did not show up. Just last Friday, there was a hearing scheduled in the case of Don Chico Palás, one of the nine leaders from northern Huehuetenango who is facing criminal charges. His youngest daughter, Cesia Juárez, had traveled from Barillas, which is near the Mexican border, and about 3 hours north of Santa Eulalia -- in all, about a 12 hour trip to the capital -- to be present at his trial, and the hearing was postponed. 

The strategy has several functions: first, it ensures that the defendants remain behind bars and unable to fully exercise their leadership in their communities and region. Therefore the movement(s) are weakened since the key leaders are not present. Secondly, it serves to intimidate the rest of the movement. Who wants to stick out his or her neck if it means winding up in jail for months or for years? And thirdly, it is designed to tire out the families and supporters, exhausting them both physically and financially. How many times is a wife or a colleague able to take off two or three days to travel to the capital, and spend money on buses, food and lodging? This is especially problematic for those in northern Huehuetenango when the trials are scheduled in Guatemala City as it takes 9 to12 hours to travel to the capital (not including the waiting time between buses -- that would make it more like 10 to 14 hours). Since most of the leaders come from fairly modest backgrounds and their families depend upon subsistence agriculture. At least a few have young children -- the wife of Domingo Baltazar, the co-defendant of Rigoberto Juárez, from Santa Eulalia -- has a baby who is less than a year old, born after her father was arrested. Traveling all day or all night on several different buses is hard enough for anyone, but with a toddler and an infant it must be nearly unbearable.

So, this morning there is supposed to be a hearing in the case of Rigoberto and Domingo. This has been scheduled for quite some time -- and I will soon be heading over to the courthouse where supporters are gathering in front, before the 8:30 starting time.  But we don't actually know if the trial will take place, as the recent incidents of postponements and delays -- two in the last three weeks -- are not promising signs. On the other hand, two of the jailed leaders were recently released -- Saúl and Rogelio, whom I was able to visit in the jail in Huehuetenango last week, during a solidarity action in the central plaza of Huehuetenango. They had been in jail for over two years -- jailed, released, and then jailed again -- and are now free. But that is a different court and a different judge. Rigoberto and Domingo have a relatively new judge in their case-- there was a switch several months back. There are conflicting views about whether this judge is more or less objective. In Guatemalan courts there are no juries -- cases are decided by judges, either individual judges or panels of judges. 

The most serious charges against them-- kidnapping and confinement (plagio y secuestro) were dropped for lack of evidence. But they still remain in jail. The lawyers have asked for alternatives to confinement for the remaining charges-- a form of parole, although that's not the term used. They would be released and would have to report to officials every so often. So let's see what today has in store. 

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