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Guatemala war crime survivors challenge amnesty bill

Guatemala City – Indigenous survivors of crimes against humanity committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war took action Wednesday against a bill advancing in Congress that would set war criminals free.

Maya Achi women filed for an injunction against the amnesty bill. The women’s ongoing court case against six men on trial for raping them in a military base in the early 1980s is one of many that would be shut down should the proposed legislation become law.

Paulina Ixpata, one of the 36 Achi survivors involved in the court case, led a small commission that travelled for several hours from Rabinal to the capital in order to file the motion for an injunction on behalf of the women.

“I feel good, but I hope we are heard,” Ixpata told Al Jazeera outside the Constitutional Court after filing the legal documents.

The next hearing in the trial of former members of the PAC, civilian defence patrols that operated under military command, for the rape and sexual assault of Achi women and girls is scheduled for late April. If Congress passes the amnesty bill in the meantime, though, the trial will be called off.

CONAVIGUA coordinator Rosalina Tuyuc (second from left) and other group members protest on February 13 outside Congress against the amnesty bill [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera] 

Initially proposed in 2017, the bill passed its first reading and vote last month. The second of three readings was on the agenda for the Congress session on Wednesday, but it was bumped from the schedule after a late start. A new date for the second reading has not been announced. 

The bill would reform the National Reconciliation Law that currently bars any amnesty for genocide, torture, forced disappearance and other crimes against humanity. The reforms would grant a blanket amnesty, ordering the release within 24 hours of the more than 30 men convicted of conflict-era atrocities, as well as those in pre-trial detention, and shutting down current and future court cases.

Proponents of the bill argue the amnesty is necessary for reconciliation and for the country to move forward. Some legislators dispute the characterisation of what occurred as crimes against humanity, claiming the military acted as necessary in a time of war.

‘I experienced it first-hand’

During the conflict between the army and leftist guerrilla forces from 1960 to 1996, an estimated 200,000 people were killed and another 40,000 were disappeared. More than 80 percent of those killed were indigenous Mayan civilians, many of them massacred in US-supported counterinsurgency campaigns. 

A United Nations-backed truth commission concluded that state forces committed more than 90 percent of civilian killings. The commission also determined that state forces carried out acts of genocide in four areas of the country, including in Maya Achi territory around Rabinal, in the Baja Verapaz department.

“I experienced it first-hand,” said Ixpata. “I feel sad because it is as though what we lived is worth nothing to [congressional representatives].”

Passing the amnesty bill would violate both Guatemalan and international law, according to Lucia Xiloj, one of the lawyers from the Rabinal-based, indigenous-led law firm representing the Achi women. Legislators may only grant amnesty for political crimes, not for crimes against humanity, she said.

I experienced it first-hand. I feel sad because it is as though what we lived is worth nothing to [congressional representatives].

Paulina Ixpata, survivor of war crimes

“We are seeking for the Congress to halt the legislative process to approve the proposed bill,” Xiloj told Al Jazeera outside the entrance to the Constitutional Court, which activists had adorned with the faces of Guatemalans killed and disappeared during the armed conflict.

“Its content contravenes commitments undertaken by the state of Guatemala, because as a member of the international community it has committed to prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide,” said Xiloj.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and a number of non-governmental organisations have publicly condemned the proposed legislative reforms.

‘We reject impunity’

The US government has not taken a stance on the bill, but some US politicians voiced their opposition. Democratic Party congressional representatives Norma Torres, Eliot Engel, James McGovern and Albio Sires released a statement on Tuesday rejecting the proposal to grant amnesty to war criminals responsible for genocide, rape, forced disappearance and other crimes against humanity. 

“The United States must not turn a blind eye to the victims of these despicable acts and must stand firmly on the side of the Guatemalan people,” the representatives said in the statement.

By law, congressional representatives may only generally address a bill during the first and second readings. During the third and final debate and vote, legislators can get into a detailed breakdown and debate and vote article by article should they decide to do so. If the bill were to pass the third vote, it would become law following its sanction by the executive branch and official publication.

Women from CONAVIGUA – an organisation founded by women whose husbands were killed or disappeared during the armed conflict – and supporters protested Wednesday outside Congress in anticipation of the second reading. They vow to return when the bill is back on the agenda.

“Victims have a right to justice. We reject any attempt to grant amnesty. We reject impunity,” CONAVIGUA national coordinator Rosalina Tuyuc told Al Jazeera at the rally outside the Congress building Wednesday.

“We call on people to stay alert. Congressional representatives could pass this law at any time,” said Tuyuc.