Guatemala arrests anti-corruption lawyer, prompting international outcry

The US has condemned the arrest of Claudia Gonzalez, a lawyer who worked with a UN-backed anti-corruption commission.

A protester holds a sign that reads in Spanish "Let the CICIG return," referring to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, in front of the National Palace in Guatemala after a meeting between Vice President Kamala Harris and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, in Guatemala City, Monday, June 7, 2021.
A protester in 2021 holds a sign calling for CICIG, a defunct international anti-corruption commission, to return [Oliver de Ros/AP Photo]

Guatemala has arrested a former member of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission, the latest in a string of legal actions taken against those who prosecuted government wrongdoing and organised crime.

The Guatemalan lawyer Claudia Gonzalez told reporters on Monday that she faces charges of abuse of authority by a public servant, despite the fact she was not a government employee when she served with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Her arrest prompted international outcry, including from the UN and its member countries.

“The United States categorically condemns the abuse of prosecutorial powers by [Guatemala’s Public Ministry],” the US State Department said in a social media post.

In its statement, the US State Department credited Gonzalez and other anti-corruption prosecutors with seeking “transparency and accountability in their country”.

Among the individuals identified in the post were Eva Siomara Sosa – who was arrested in 2022 – and Juan Francisco Sandoval, who fled Guatemala in 2021 out of fear for his safety.

At a Monday briefing, a spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General António Guterres “also noted with concern reports of recent raids and arrest warrants against Guatemalan prosecutors”, naming Gonzalez among them.

Lawyers, judges and legal experts associated with anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala have, in turn, found themselves facing legal action in recent years, with some 30 legal professionals being forced to flee the country.

Critics allege that the government has used trumped-up charges to attack former anti-corruption professionals in an attempt to weaken oversight and consolidate power.

Gonzalez recently served as a defence lawyer for other prosecutors and officials facing similar charges.

Previously, she worked as a legal representative for CICIG, a commission formed in 2006 as part of an agreement between the UN and Guatemala.

Its aim was to root out organised crime in the country and within its government. The group is credited with leading investigations that resulted in more than 400 convictions, including one against former President Otto Perez Molina.

While CICIG won widespread support in Guatemala for its anti-corruption work, it also sparked a backlash, with some political figures working to dismantle the group.

The commission was ultimately disbanded in 2019 by former President Jimmy Morales, who himself was under investigation.

But critics warn the persecution of anti-corruption advocates goes beyond CICIG.

Progressive Congressman Bernardo Arevalo likewise campaigned for president in 2023 on an anti-corruption platform.

But after emerging as a frontrunner in the first round of voting in June, Arevalo and his party faced legal challenges and office raids led by Guatemala’s Attorney General María Consuelo Porras.

The US has sanctioned Porras for “significant corruption”, accusing her of using her position “to protect her political allies and gain undue political favor”.

Nevertheless, Arevalo achieved a landslide victory in Guatemala’s presidential run-off election on August 20.

But critics warn he continues to receive threats that may endanger the peaceful transfer of power. Last week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asked the Guatemalan government to provide Arevalo with additional security, citing death threats against him and Vice President-elect Karin Herrera.

And on Monday, as the election results were certified, the government of outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei suspended Arevalo’s party, the Seed Movement, raising questions about his political future.

Arevalo is set to take office on January 14.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies