British man facing prison time in Guatemala after he accused a prominent lawyer of shady adoption practices

Date: 2004-01-30

National Public Radio - Morning Edition
Profile: British man facing prison time in Guatemala after he accused a prominent lawyer of shady adoption practices


In Guatemala, an internationally known children's rights activist is waiting to be sentenced on slander charges. Bruce Harris, a British citizen, faces up to eight years in prison. Human rights groups say this case will test Guatemala's commitment to free speech. Catherine Elton has been attending the trial and has this report.

(Soundbite from videotape)

Mr. BRUCE HARRIS (Covenant House Latin America): (Foreign language spoken)


In a packed courtroom, lawyers, judges, diplomats and curious onlookers watch a videotape of a 1997 press conference. On the tape, they hear Bruce Harris accuse lawyer Susana Luarca of using undue influence to push through adoptions for her foreign clients. At the time, Luarca was married to the president of Guatemala's Supreme Court. In the weeks after the conference, Luarca brought criminal charges against Harris for defamation. Last week, the case went to trial. Walter Robles is Luarca's lawyer.

Mr. WALTER ROBLES (Lawyer): (Through Translator) This man has come here and broken the laws of Guatemala, and the law should apply to everyone. So long as he doesn't have proof, he should be tried and sentenced. That is the goal of this trial, to get a conviction.

ELTON: Police and prosecutors investigated Luarca in the year 2000 for alleged irregularities in adoptions, but the charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence. As the director of Covenant House Latin America, Harris has been an outspoken proponent for changes in Guatemala's adoption laws. Per capita, Guatemala is the number one country in the world for international adoption. Harris believes that lax laws and unscrupulous attorneys have converted the institution of adoption into a lucrative yet shady business. But as a result of this trial, Harris has become an advocate for another cause. Speaking during a recess, Harris said what's at stake in this trial is freedom of expression.

Mr. HARRIS: In a situation of freedom of expression, which the Constitution of Guatemala upholds and should guarantee, then people have the right to speak openly about things that are happening. And also, people have the right to receive information about what's happening.

ELTON: Michael Bochenek, a lawyer with the US-based Human Rights Watch, came to Guatemala last week to observe the trial. He says the big issue in this case is Guatemala's defamation laws.

Mr. MICHAEL BOCHENEK (Human Rights Watch): So a person who speaks out and is found guilty of one of these actions can be sentenced to prison. Now in the English common law system and in most countries in the world, the right to freedom of expression balances out the charges such that somebody who speaks out and is proven to be wrong faces only a civil fine rather than a criminal action. Here in Guatemala and elsewhere in the region, the criminal action is a possibility, and it is one that has a severe chilling effect for people who wish to speak out on matters of public concern.

ELTON: Some activists say that these cases and their severe sanctions are just another form of persecution of human rights defenders in Guatemala. Harris says that a decade ago, while investigating the murders of street kids, unknown assailants fired at his Guatemala City office. After the attack, he relocated his residence to Costa Rica. Now, he says, new foes are using new tactics.

Mr. HARRIS: I guess there's some progress here in Guatemala in the sense that they're not trying to shut us down with bullets, but they cannot continue to use defamation lawsuits against human rights defenders as a way of trying to shut them up.

ELTON: The three-judge panel is expected to rule later today. For NPR News, I'm Catherine Elton in Guatemala City.

EDWARDS: The time is 21 minutes before the hour.


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