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DEATH PENALTY-GUATEMALA: Colom Had Second Thoughts – Will Congress?

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Mar 18 2008 (IPS) - The Guatemalan Congress must decide, after Mar. 26, whether to overrule President Álvaro Colom’s veto of a law that gave the green light to resuming executions of prisoners on death row.

Pressure from the international community and human rights groups prompted the social democratic Colom to veto the “pardon law”, approved by Congress on Feb. 12 by 140 of the legislature’s 158 lawmakers, including the president’s supporters, even though immediately after its passage Colom had said he had no plans to pardon Guatemala’s death row inmates.

When it meets again after Easter break, Congress will be able to revoke the veto with the votes of two-thirds of its members, or 105 lawmakers. However, in the view of most analysts, the legislature will accept the president’s will in this case.

“If Congress approves the law as it stands, it will be shocking, as it contains a number of inconsistencies, such as not guaranteeing an effective appeal mechanism for the condemned prisoners and contravening principles of international law,” David Dávila, of the Guatemalan Institute for Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences, told IPS.

The law restores the possibility of an appeal for a presidential pardon or commutation of sentence, a right which was revoked under the government of Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004).

Since then the lack of a final appeal procedure has meant a de facto moratorium on executions in Guatemala. By restoring an appeal process, the law that was just vetoed would have provided a means for executions to go ahead.

According to the statement announcing Colom’s veto on Mar.14, the law violates the constitution by allowing the president only 30 days to decide on whether to grant a pardon, and because 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, stipulates that the death penalty cannot be applied while an appeal is pending.

An editorial in the newspaper Prensa Libre, which has the widest circulation in Guatemala, said on Saturday that support for the death penalty has dropped considerably, especially among the ruling party in Congress, so that it will be impossible to obtain the 105 votes necessary to overrule the veto.

Colom stated on Friday that he has the support of legislators from his party, the National Union of Hope (UNE), and those of three other unspecified parties.

Of the 158 members of Congress, 51 belong to UNE, 29 to the rightwing Patriot Party (PP), 24 to another rightwing party, the Grand National Alliance (GANA), 14 to the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), and the remaining 40 to seven smaller opposition parties.

Mario Taracena, head of the government party in Congress, told the press that the bloc will respect the president’s veto because when they first voted in February, they had not taken international pressure into account, nor Guatemala’s vote in favour of a moratorium on executions at the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 18, 2007.

“Guatemala cannot isolate itself from the rest of the world. We cannot be the exception. Any execution would cool our international relations,” Colom said when he announced his decision to veto the law.

GANA legislator Jaime Martínez also told reporters that his congressional bloc would fall in with the president’s decision.

PP lawmaker Gudy Rivera, however, announced that if Congress does not overturn the veto, his party will introduce a draft law to transfer the power to grant or deny pardons to the Supreme Court.

The pardon law was approved in February on the initiative of the PP, joined by UNE lawmakers who, according to some observers, had not consulted the president.

Congress passed the law making executions possible once again at a time when feelings ran particularly high, because “maras” or youth gangs had murdered at least seven bus drivers who refused to pay bribes, in the space of just four days.

Only the small leftwing Encuentro por Guatemala and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity parties, with four and two seats, respectively, voted against the law.

In the wake of the presidential veto, social sectors have advocated the abolition of capital punishment. “The next step should be to abolish the death penalty,” Iduvina Hernández, head of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in a Democracy (SEDEM), told IPS.

Mario Polanco, of the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a local human rights organisation, also called on the president to do away with the death penalty.

Guatemala and Cuba are the only countries in Latin America which maintain capital punishment for certain crimes.

Presidents Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Antonio Saca of El Salvador, Manuel Zelaya of Honduras and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, at a summit held in Costa Rica last Wednesday, announced their “solidarity” with Colom in the decision he was facing on the pardon law. But they also called on “all countries” to abolish the death penalty.

The Guatemalan Catholic Church, Protestant churches and the European Union all declared themselves against capital punishment.

Analysts, however, emphasise that neither the president nor UNE lawmakers are contemplating abolition. In his election campaign, Colom said the death penalty was not a solution to the country’s soaring rates of violent crime, but clarified that it formed part of the country’s laws, which he would respect.

Polls indicate that a majority of Guatemala’s 13 million people are in favour of the death penalty.

Colom said that “desperation” is what drives Guatemalans to support capital punishment, which is “not an effective deterrent,” and which has not succeeded in reducing violence in this country, where there are on average 11 murders a day. He called for security institutions and the justice system to be strengthened in order to reduce crime.

In this Central American country, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, the justice system clears up less than 10 percent of all murders.

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