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DEATH PENALTY-GUATEMALA: Green Light for Executions

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 13 2008 (IPS) - Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom said Wednesday that he would not pardon those on death row – a presidential option that was restored by parliament in a decision that ended a de facto moratorium on executions in place since 2000.

On Tuesday, the Guatemalan Congress passed a law that allows the president to pardon prisoners on death row or commute their sentences to life in prison – a decision that drew heavy criticism from human rights groups because they say it will expedite executions.

While the new law allows the president to pardon the 21 inmates currently facing capital punishment, by filling a legal vacuum that has blocked executions since 2000 it actually gives the go-ahead for the application of the death penalty.

“The law has major technical flaws, because it does not guarantee an effective pardon and because it contravenes international law,” David Dávila at the Guatemalan Institute for Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences told IPS.

Dávila announced that a group of non-governmental organisations would ask Colom to veto the law, which was approved by more than two-thirds of the members of parliament after a wave of killings of bus drivers last week.

In the space of just four days, youth gangs known locally as “maras” murdered seven bus drivers who they were extorting for “protection” payments.

But analysts say it is unlikely that Colom, a social democrat who took office on Jan. 14, will veto the new law. Although he said in the election campaign that capital punishment was not a “solution” to violent crime, he clarified that it was provided for by Guatemalan legislation and said he would respect the country’s laws.

In addition, opinion polls show that a majority of people in this impoverished Central American country, which has one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world, support the death penalty.

At any rate, a presidential veto would be fairly easy for the legislature to overturn. Doing so would require the votes of 105 of the 158 members of the single-chamber parliament, when in fact 140 lawmakers, including Colom’s supporters, approved the law on Tuesday.

“They are trying to speed up the executions,” said Dávila, who said application of the death penalty would hurt the international image of Guatemala, which on Dec. 18 voted in favour of a global moratorium on executions in the United Nations General Assembly.

During the government of Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004), Congress overturned an 1892 law on presidential pardons, leaving Guatemala without any procedure for prisoners to be pardoned or amnestied or to have their sentences commuted, and creating a de facto moratorium on executions.

Dávila pointed out that the 30-day timeframe given the president to decide on each death penalty case was criticised in an open letter sent to Guatemalan legislators in May 2007 by the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH).

The FIDH also expressed concern over the fact that if the president fails to make a pronouncement on a case, the sentence automatically proceeds to execution, based on the tacit denial of a pardon.

The American Convention on Human Rights, which was ratified by Guatemala in 1978, states that the death penalty cannot be applied as long as any appeal is pending.

Although the law was not on the legislative agenda, it was put to a vote Tuesday on the initiative of the rightwing opposition Patriot Party (PP).

Only the leftist Encuentro por Guatemala and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union parties voted against it.

PP leader Otto Pérez Molina said the death penalty, along with the declaration of a state of emergency in the country’s most violent areas and the participation of the military in policing could help the government deal with the country’s severe problems with violent crime.

“We are opposed to the application of the death penalty,” Iduvina Hernández, the head of the non-governmental Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in a Democracy (SEDEM), told IPS. She said the approval of the law was “a political show that does not resolve the underlying problem of violence.”

In Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, less than 10 percent of homicides are solved.

The high levels of violence and the continued existence of death squads that carry out “social cleansing”, often targeting suspected gang members, are holdovers from the 1960-1996 civil war in which 200,000 mainly rural indigenous people were killed, the great majority by the security forces and allied paramilitary groups.

According to the Mutual Support Group, a local human rights organisation, 3,319 murders were reported in this country of 13 million in 2007. Most of the victims were shot to death.

In 1996, two men were executed by firing squad in Guatemala. But one of the executions – which were televised – was botched, requiring a coup de grace to complete the job. The howls of outrage from the international community prompted the government to switch methods.

The latest executions, one of which took place in 1998 and two in 2000, were carried out by lethal injection, and went ahead despite appeals for clemency lodged by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Sixty percent of those on death row in Guatemala have been sentenced for kidnapping (some of the cases involved the death of the victim), and 40 percent for homicide.

Commenting on how routine murder has become in Guatemala, Unionist Party legislator Pablo Duarte said during Tuesday’s parliamentary debate that “It’s outrageous to see children eating ice cream every day at crime scenes, standing right next to the dead bodies. I hope those sentenced to death are executed.”

But Hernández argued that “Guatemala should move forward, not backwards,” and added that if the president does not veto the law, a group of non-governmental organisations will file a lawsuit arguing that it is unconstitutional.

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