Freedom of speech goes on trial in Guatemala [opinion]

Date: 2002-07-28
Source: Panama News
Freedom of speech goes on trial in Guatemala

by Casa Alianza

Casa Alianza’s Director of Latin American programs goes on trial in Guatemala next month in a case that tests the freedom of speech of human rights defenders who speak out publicly against violations in a country trying to move from decades of military dictatorships to democracy.

The 12th Criminal Court of Guatemala has set August 16th as the date for Bruce Harris, Casa Alianza’s Regional Director for Latin American programs, to go on trial for defamation. The Englishman faces up to five years in jail for having spoken out about the involvement of lawyers and notaries in questionable activities in Guatemala’s lucrative international adoption business. Harris was a guest of Guatemala’s Attorney General, Asisclo Valladares, at a September 1997 press conference where they announced the findings of a six-month joint investigation into the illegal trafficking of Guatemalan and Mexican babies who were sent to other countries through international adoptions.

Harris is accused of defamation by Susana Luarca (formerly Susana de Umana), a notary and lawyer, involved in a series of allegations of questionable international adoptions. Luarca, a Mexican by birth yet naturalized Guatemalan, was at the time married to the President of the Guatemalan Supreme Court, Ricardo Umana. They have since separated. According to the joint investigation between the Guatemalan Attorney General and Casa Alianza, Umana would use her position to pressure court employees and judges to facilitate her adoption cases.

International adoptions from Guatemala cost adoptive parents between $15,000 and $25,000 each and more than 2,300 adoptions were completed in 2001, making babies one of the most successful non-traditional exports from the Central American country. Guatemala, which has no law to regulate adoptions, exports more babies per capita through international adoptions than any other country in the world. Umana is also a legal advisor to an orphanage run by an American woman from where many international adoptions take place.

A few days after the 1997 press conference, Umana de Luarca slapped a defamation suit against Harris, accusing him of defamation, perjury and slander. She did not sue the Attorney General, whose office had to investigate questionable adoptions.

Harris, who has been defended by the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala amongst others, argued that Article 35 of the Guatemalan Constitution protects freedom of expression and the Constitutional Law requires that a "Printers Tribunal" should resolve any accusations of defamation. But the Guatemalan judiciary, all the way to the Constitutional Court, sided with Umana and stated that Harris did not have freedom of expression "because he is not a journalist" and have refused to convene a Printers Tribunal, leaving the case in a criminal court.

Several international human rights and freedom of expression groups, including the University of Notre Dame Law School, had written Amicus briefs for the Guatemalan Constitutional Court supporting Harris’s legal arguments, but without effect.

The Center for Justice and International Law, CEJIL, a legal group that supports victims of human rights violations, presented the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission --- a structure of the Organization of American States --- in Washington. The Commission has accepted the case against the State of Guatemala for allegedly violating Harris’s rights of freedom of expression and equality under the law, both protected by the American Convention on Human Rights. The case, number 12,352, may take several years to reach a conclusion.

"In the past, those with power have tried to shut us up with bullets," commented Harris, referring to an armed attack against his life in Casa Alianza’s Guatemalan center in the early 1990s. "Now they are trying to do the same through quasi legal moves in the Guatemalan judiciary which has not always been known for its total transparency."

In Guatemala, defamation is a criminal offense that carries up to a five-year jail term and an accusation where, according to the Guatemalan Criminal Code, truth is no defense. If the five-person Printers Tribunal finds that defamation did take place, the maximum sentence the judge can impose is six months of house arrest.

Harris is concerned that a Constitutional Court ruling that dictates that only journalists have freedom of expression is a dangerous legal precedent in a country renowned for human rights violations. "This is not just a case against me, this is an attempt by powerful interests to maintain a stranglehold on a society that yearns for peace and democracy. But without freedom of speech, neither will exist."

As a result of the 1997 press conference, which drew the world’s attention to illegal adoptions in Guatemala, many countries --- including Canada, Spain, the UK, Ireland, and Holland, amongst others --- have stopped all adoptions from Guatemala. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children reported, after a 1998 visit that "the majority of adoptions from Guatemala are illegal." In 1998 the United States, which receives more than 60 percent of Guatemala’s adopted children, instigated obligatory DNA testing between the baby and the supposed biological mother.

Harris filed a countersuit against Luarca, which will be heard on July 31st in the same court.

For more information or to find out how you can help, please contact Bruce Harris by telephone at (506) 253-5439 or by email at bruce@casa-alianza.org

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