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RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: Indigenous Lawyers Declare War on Racism

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jun 16 2004 (IPS) - The newly created Guatemalan Association of Mayan Lawyers will play a role in the selection of judges and will defend the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples in the Central American country, where ”racism and discrimination reign,” said Amílcar Pop, founder of the group.

”Now that we have an assemblage of indigenous professionals who are conscious of their ethnic reality, it is the ideal moment to create a point of convergence that makes us strong and allows us to present concrete proposals against a racist state,” Pop told IPS in a telephone interview from the Guatemalan capital.

The new association, made up of 94 indigenous lawyers and notaries, made its formal debut this week, just as a process is getting under way to renovate 72 judgeships in courts of second instance and the 13 posts in Guatemala’s Supreme Court.

”It’s totally unjust that there is not a single Indian magistrate in the higher courts, when in this country more than 50 percent of the population (of 11.5 million) belongs to some indigenous group,” said Pop.

”Now is the time to come forward, as Indians, and to demand an end to discrimination in the justice system,” said the attorney, who is also among the plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits against former Guatemalan military leaders and government leaders for acts of discrimination and human rights violations.

The process of designating new judges in the Central American nation entails the presentation of candidates by lawyers’ guilds and associations, by tribunals and by the deans of the law schools.

The nominees will then go through a selection process and the Guatemalan Congress will formally elect finalists in October.

The participants in the process of nominating candidates number no more than 3,000. ”We are in a circle that is too small, in which Indians do not appear because of that racist and ethnocentric attitude of the Guatemalan state,” Pop said.

Guatemala is among the Latin American countries with highest proportion of indigenous population.

”We are going to be in this judge selection process and fight for it, because we have several names of indigenous attorneys and notaries who are fully qualified,” he said.

The new Association of Mayan Lawyers also aims to defend indigenous peoples who have legal problems related to land ownership.

”It is incredible that in Guatemala three percent of the inhabitants are landowners, while 80 percent of the population is submerged in poverty. This cannot go on, and our association will propose changes and will defend its brothers and sisters, who are the true owners of the land,” said the association leader.

Eighty percent of Guatemalans are poor, and 60 percent of the productive land is in the hands of just 20 percent of rural property owners.

Among the flashpoints of the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996) was the indigenous demand for land, a claim that was partially dealt with in the peace accords that put an end to the national conflict – but a broad-based resolution has never been put forth.

So far this year, the government of Oscar Berger has ordered 24 evictions of Indians and peasant farmers who have occupied farmland. According to reports, the expulsions were carried out with excessive use of force.

In protest against Berger’s policy, around 100 civil society organisations – many of them indigenous – staged a 24-hour national strike last week.

The strikers also demanded that the government review the free trade agreement signed in May with the United States and refrain from imposing more taxes.

Pressured by the strike, Berger pledged to suspend the evictions and to attend to the rest of the demands.

Prior to the protests, Berger threatened to use ”all of the state’s force” to prevent ”the interests of a group of activists” from bringing the country to a standstill.

But in the end, he promised not to push through a fiscal austerity package, which would include an increase in the value added tax, from 12 to 15 percent, and other tax hikes.

Pop says the lawyers association should consider itself part of the Guatemalan social movement because it will be acting side by side with it and on behalf of it.

The group will also advocate for compliance with the commitments detailed in the peace accords for compensating the victims of the civil war and bringing the human rights violators to trial.

The lack of democratic mechanisms was another factor that fuelled the 36-year conflict in which more than 200,000 people were killed, at least 150,000 in extra-judicial executions, while 45,000 were ”disappeared”, according to the report by the Commission for Historic Clarification, established by the peace accords.

Groups of peasant farmers and Indians who were victims of the civil war began street demonstrations Monday in Guatemala City and along major roads to demand compensation.

Berger said Tuesday his government will look into the public coffers in order to ”give something” to those who suffered the loss of family members, forced displacement, illegal arrests, torture or whose belongings were seized during the civil war.

”The tasks we have before us in today’s Guatemala – where racism and contempt for Indians persist – are immense, and we do not yet have an office or funding, but we are going to move forward as an association,” said a confident Pop.

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