A woman in a dark suit (Virginia Laparra) presses her fist to a window that is re-enforced by a metal grate. Photo: Prensa Comunitaria

Guatemala: Prisoner of conscience Virginia Laparra jailed one year ago

Guatemalan former prosecutor Virginia Laparra has been unjustly imprisoned for one year as a result of unfounded criminal proceedings riddled with irregularities that violate her human rights, Amnesty International said on Thursday.

“It is alarming that the Guatemalan authorities have been incapable of guaranteeing Virginia Laparra’s most basic defence rights and due process. One year after her arrest, it is clear that the multiple arbitrary actions and irregularities in the case put forward by the prosecution and the Judiciary are due to the authorities’ obsession with punishing all the people who have contributed to the fight against corruption and impunity,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. 

“Virginia Laparra must be released immediately and unconditionally. Every day in prison puts her health and rights at serious risk, in addition to aggravating the human rights context in the country,” she added. 

Targeted for taking on corruption

Virginia Laparra was arrested on 23 February 2022 in Quetzaltenango. On 16 December 2022, a Court in Guatemala City sentenced her to four years in prison for the crime of ongoing abuse of authority. Amnesty International reiterates its dismay at this conviction, which is based on the court’s analysis that the then prosecutor committed a crime solely by initiating an administrative lawsuit accusing a judge of corruption.

In addition, on 19 October 2022, while she was in preventive detention for this first case, a new arrest warrant was issued against the former prosecutor related to another criminal complaint filed by the same judge that Laparra had previously accused and which led to further criminal proceedings in Quetzaltenango. Amnesty International notes with concern that Guatemalan authorities condoned the use of vexatious litigation, forcing Virginia Laparra to defend herself simultaneously in two parallel proceedings initiated by the same person for the same acts. In addition, the organization received information about misogynistic attacks against Virginia Laparra and her legal team during the hearings and recesses and that these attacks were repeatedly tolerated by the authorities in both cases. 

‘We reiterate our call to the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Virginia Laparra, and to put an end to the harassment and unfounded criminal prosecution of judicial officials, human rights defenders, and journalists.’

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director, Amnesty International

In addition, Amnesty International verified that after her arrest on 23 February last year, Guatemalan authorities failed to take her first statement within the 24 hour deadline laid down by the constitution. Furthermore, the authorities did not justify, in accordance with international standards, why they sent and kept Virginia Laparra in preventive detention. On the contrary, the authorities distorted the process to such an extent that they used the legal actions brought by the former prosecutor as part of her right to defence, as well as the statements made by her and her legal team to the press, to justify refusing her conditional release. 

Lack of transparency

Amnesty International also expresses its concern at other violations of the rights of Virginia Laparra in prison, including detention conditions incompatible with human dignity in the Mariscal Zavala prison, and the lack of timely health care

Furthermore, Amnesty International believes that the limitations on access for the press and national and international observers in the first stage of the court proceedings in Guatemala City last year, as well as the recent declaration of confidentiality in the case before the Quetzaltenango court, without any valid justification under international law standards, violate Virginia Laparra’s right to an impartial and independent public hearing. Amnesty International reminds the authorities that public hearings maintain society’s confidence in the justice system and form part of the right to inform and receive information. 

According to the information received, dozens of judicial officials, human rights defenders, and journalists in Guatemala are facing unfounded criminal proceedings. At least 29 judicial officials have left the country in recent years for fear of being the target of criminal prosecutions. 

“Virginia Laparra is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for her work investigating corruption cases. The unfounded lawsuits against her and the multiple violations of her rights are a clear sign that there is no due process for those who led the fight against corruption and impunity in Guatemala. We reiterate our call to the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Virginia Laparra, and to put an end to the harassment and unfounded criminal prosecution of judicial officials, human rights defenders, and journalists,” Erika Guevara-Rosas added.