The Cabal to Silence Bruce Harris [opinion]

Date: 2004-01-18
Source: Panama News
The Cabal to Silence Bruce Harris: Probe into illegal adoptions and revelations of corruption in high places inspires spurious lawsuit against child welfare advocate.
Shoot the messenger
by W. E. Gutman

"No one likes the bearer of bad news." --- Antigone, line 277, Sophocles (496-406 B.C.E.)

Journalists and whistle-blowers have one thing in common: they are often perceived as insufferable meddlers. Both appeal to the truth, one in service of historicity, the other in the interest of transparency. Their disclosures are seldom appreciated. In marginally democratic nations both are feared and reviled.

Being watchdog and message-bearer to the multitudes is a tall order, especially for an institution as fragile as the press. The task takes on Herculean dimensions when the truth is uttered, not by an accredited newsman, but by an eminent and respected human rights activist.

Take the curious case of Guatemala vs. Bruce Harris, a travesty of justice fraught with sinister overtones. Harris, the charismatic head of Casa Alianza, an advocacy group serving homeless children in Latin America, has been the target of persistent judicial shenanigans by the state of Guatemala. His crime: aiding and abetting in the investigation of illegal adoptions. The case has since mutated into a fraudulent defamation of character lawsuit by the plaintiffs. Postponed several times his trial, now scheduled for January 22, could cost Harris his freedom. Harris' defense has been further compromised by Guatemala's assertion that, not being a journalist, he has no freedom of speech. Only Guatemala, known for its brutal treatment of incorruptible journalists, would have the effrontery to resort to such sophistry.

Two systems, both shady

International adoptions from Guatemala, which has the weakest statutes in Central America, rose dramatically in the past few years.

There are two ways to adopt a child in Guatemala --- private and "official." The first is handled by attorneys, generally at the behest of young, poor, multiparous mothers. By law, the mother can stop the adoption process at any time, a right rarely spelled out --- or enforced. Despondent and economically strapped, mothers are treated by attorneys to quality prenatal, delivery and post-partum care --- a benevolence the attorneys are quick to levy against mothers who decide to keep their babies. The private system invites both coercion and corruption. Although mothers must, by law, submit to an interview with the Solicitor General's Office and the adoptive parents' diplomatic representative, attorneys often threaten mothers with dire consequences if they back down.

The "official" system takes precedence when an infant has been declared legally abandoned by a juvenile court judge. The State becomes the "birth mother" and acts to protect the child's best interests. While this form of adoption appears to be more reliable, collusion between judges and attorneys for the adoptive parents is a recurrent problem.

Harris smells a rat

Casa Alianza-Guatemala has a formal agreement with the Solicitor General's Office under which the organization is empowered to share intelligence and lend its expertise in investigations of civil and human rights violations of Guatemalan minors.

In 1997, Casa Alianza was asked to help investigate the trafficking of babies from Chiapas, Mexico to San Marcos and Guatemala City, and, from there, to overseas destinations. The probe yielded immediate and unsettling results: babies were being systematically stolen, bought or tricked out of their mothers' arms then issued forged birth certificates. Casa Alianza also found that Public Registrars were routinely bribed and that midwives were paid to attest to being present at births that did not occur. A perfect stranger was then paid about $50 to act as the birth mother. Warned of the consequences of perjury if she snitched, the unwitting accomplice was then dispatched to Guatemala City. Once there, she "voluntarily" surrendered the infant to attorneys who, for $15,000 --- and in the absence of DNA testing linking the infant to the fake mother --- arranged for the baby to be promptly flown out of the country by its adoptive parents.

In September 1997, the Solicitor General's Office called a press conference at which, Casa Alianza, represented by Bruce Harris, was invited to take part. Also present were Carmela Curup, head of the Juvenile section of the Solicitor General's Office, and Asisclo Valladares, then Solicitor General, who had high praise for Casa Alianza's work. Results of the joint investigation were publicly released, along with a list of 15 criminal complaints that had been filed with the Public Prosecutor's Office. One of the complaints alleged that attorney Susana Maria Luarca Saracho de Umaña, wife of the former President of Guatemala's Supreme Court, Ricardo Umaña [now a Supreme Court Magistrate] had routinely engaged in influence peddling and solicitation of favors. She was explicitly accused of pressuring public officials to overlook her illicit adoption schemes.

Later that month, Mrs. Umaña accused Bruce Harris of defamation, perjury and slander. Contrary to international law, defamation is considered a criminal, rather than civil, offense in Guatemala.

Two days later, the 4th Tribunal of Criminal Sentencing hastily agreed to reconvene for a conciliation hearing in October. Casa Alianza was officially notified of this decision on September 30. A sheaf of documents was found wedged into the door of Casa Alianza's Crisis Centerin Guatemala City. Conspicuously absent from the dossier was Mrs. Umaña's formal complaint. That same day, Casa Alianza returned the incomplete dossier to the Tribunal with a letter notifying the court of its oversight. Harris subsequently questioned the competence and impartiality of the Tribunal.

Casa Alianza promptly retained an attorney. At the October hearing, in a Kafkaesque scheme to frustrate the defense, the Tribunal repudiated Harris's attorney. It also reprimanded Harris for being absent at the hearing. The Tribunal was subsequently petitioned to withdraw from the case, which was transferred to the 5th Tribunal.

In November, the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala took over Harris' defense. To date the new Tribunal has rejected every petition for reconsideration filed by the defense. In June 1998 the court cleared the way for a criminal trial

Legal lawlessness?

Guatemala's legal system is notoriously slow. Of the 385 lawsuits instituted by Casa Alianza in cases involving violence against minors, only 15 were successfully prosecuted --- not for lack of incontrovertible evidence, but because the courts refused to examine the evidence. The criminal case against Harris appears to be unusually --- and suspiciously --- hasty. If convicted, he faces a stiff prison term.

In Guatemala, "the truth" is not a defense in arguing against a charge of slander. Clearly, and in flagrant violation of both the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 35 of the Guatemalan Constitution, the courts have prejudged Harris and unilaterally concluded that constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression do not apply to him.

The 5th Tribunal's rationale appears all the more skewed considering that Harris' chief accuser --- Susana Maria Luarca Saracho de Umaña --- was herself the subject of at least two criminal investigations, and that the "defamatory" charges leveled against her at a public press conference and in the presence of Guatemala's Attorney General, proved to be accurate and fitting. Indeed, Mrs. Umaña was then ordered to return two infants destined for adoption in the US to their birth mothers. Casa Alianza and the Archbishop's legal office were instrumental in reuniting the infants with their mothers, who had been tricked into giving them up.

Disregarding Harris' ad honorem status with the Solicitor General's Office and his participation in that capacity at the press conference, the Tribunal now further contends that Bruce Harris is not a journalist and therefore had no right to attend a press conference at which allegations --- legitimate or not --- were being aired in public. The Tribunal continues to deny Harris the right to summon the Solicitor General's Office for corroboration.

Guatemala's insistence that the truth is not a justifiable defense and that freedom of expression excludes the right to speak up against verifiable crime and injustice bodes ill for a nation whose violent past and somber present continue to be the subject of scrutiny. Underlying the Harris case, and regardless of the outcome, is the nagging reminder that in Guatemala, despite claims to the contrary, transparent politics, justice and a respect for fundamental rights are nebulous objectives, not a priority.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran investigative journalist on regular assignment in Central America. He lives and works in southern California.


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