Despite ‘unfair’ trial and conviction that was annulled, Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora remains in prison

José Rubén Zamora Marroquín has already spent more than 570 days in the Mariscal Zavala prison in Guatemala despite having his sentence annulled. Added to that is the fact that various national and international organizations have highlighted the violations of human rights and international law throughout his case.

In what seems to be the most recent strategy of the judicial system, his trials are constantly delayed to keep him in prison without any legal reason, as Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

“There is no way to justify that they had detained him for the first time, imagine that he is still detained more than 18 months later with the sentence annulled and with abundant evidence of violations of his rights,” Martínez de la Serna said. "What is the problem? On the one hand, he has this main case and other secondary cases, but one of the strategies that the public prosecutor’s office permanently uses is to delay the holding of hearings […]. There is a part of the judiciary that does not act in accordance with the standards and processes that it should follow.”

As Martínez de la Serna points out, these delays are related to the different cases against Zamora. The journalist was originally accused of the alleged crimes of money laundering, influence peddling and blackmail. On June 14, 2023, he was sentenced to six years in prison for money laundering and absolved of the two other crimes. This sentence was annulled in October 2023, and a new trial was ordered. But he has two other cases. In the second, Zamora is accused of the alleged crime of “obstruction of justice” and the third for alleged use of false documents.

The most recent of these delays took place on Feb. 25, when the retrial for the sentence that was annulled was supposed to begin. However, the trial was delayed and a new date has not been set.

Hearings for the second case have been delayed three times. The latest came on Feb. 21, when the prosecutor was feeling ill. The next hearing is set for March 20.

“I can imagine the pressure they feel… The only thing they have left to do in order to keep me [in prison] longer is to postpone this. But I see them as more worried, I am calm,” Zamora told media who were in the court on Feb. 21.

The journalist's eldest son, José Carlos Zamora, also views this as a strategy to hold his father “hostage” and calls for his new trials to be carried out in accordance with the law.

"The Guatemalan government has been holding my father hostage on spurious charges for 578 days. His crime, denouncing corruption at the highest levels of the [former President Alejandro] Giammattei administration,” he told LJR. “It’s time for his case to be assigned to professional and impartial judges who accept and review the existing evidence that can absolve him and give him back his freedom immediately. The bad faith dilatory strategy by the judiciary and the prosecution needs to stop."

Due to various allegations of irregularities in his judicial process, his case was monitored by Trial Watch, an initiative of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which seeks to “expose injustice, help to free those unjustly detained and promote the rule of law around the world." The organization monitors criminal trials against “those who are most vulnerable,” including journalists, women, LGBTIQ+ persons, among others.


A “fundamentally unfair” trial

“José Rubén Zamora Marroquín should never have been prosecuted,” thus begins the conclusion of the Trial Watch report, signed by Camilo Sánchez, one of the experts of the initiative. “The charges of

money laundering, influence peddling, and blackmail against him appear to be a pretext for government retaliation, given his critical reporting on corruption as a journalist whose work is protected under international law.”

“The proceedings against Mr. Zamora have been fraught with irregularities and fair trial violations,” the conclusion continued. “Moreover, his ongoing detention –18 months from the time of his arrest to the publication of this report in February 2024 – is arbitrary and an egregious violation of his right to liberty. Mr. Zamora must be released immediately.”

For these reasons, Sánchez graded the trial against Zamora with an F, the worst of all. According to Trial Watch parameters, this grade corresponds to “a trial that entailed a gross violation of international standards that affected the outcome and/or resulted in significant harm.”

The report, released in early February, accounts for all the irregularities reported by different organizations during these 18 months, including CPJ. One of these allegations has to do with the pretrial detention to which Zamora was subjected since his arrest on July 29, 2022.

For Trial Watch evaluators, the argument for pretrial detention is “extremely vague,” including that he might allegedly influence witnesses because he held a high position at elPeriódico.

“That fails to satisfy international and regional requirements that pretrial detention be a last resort,” the report said.

It also added that Zamora has not been given the possibility of judicial review of this pretrial detention despite the requests of the lawyers. But, also, that the basis for the argument ceased to exist when elPeriódico was dissolved, in May 2023.

The report also highlighted the different types of pressure and harassment against possible witnesses, as well as Zamora's lawyers. It explained, for example, how members of elPeriódico (including journalists, columnists and executives) were investigated and/or accused in cases related to Zamora. Four of his lawyers were prosecuted and forced to accept charges of which they were accused, another left the country after suffering threats and intimidation, and in general they had problems accessing defense documents. By the end of the trial, Zamora had had 10 lawyers.

For Trial Watch this sent “a clear message that anyone who supported Mr. Zamora would themselves be the target of judicial harassment.”

Added to this is the impossibility for Zamora's defense to present evidence and witnesses, which was later recognized in the sentence against him. According to Trial Watch, by noting that the defense had not been able to prove the legitimate origin of the money, the burden of proof was “erroneously” reversed.

For the majority of his time in prison, Zamora has been “reportedly in harsh conditions in solitary confinement,” according to the report. The military prison, intended for drug traffickers and corrupt politicians, in recent years has held judicial operators, political opponents and journalists, according to the media outlet Divergentes.

Hombre de pie recostado sobre una litera de prisión habla con cuatro personas que se encuentran sentadas

Una misión de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) visita en prisión al periodista José Rubén Zamora para dar seguimiento a las medidas cautelares vigentes del periodista. La misión estuvo compuesta por la Secretaria Ejecutiva, Tania Reneaum, y por el Relator Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Pedro Vaca. Febrero de 2024. (Foto: CIDH)

The conditions that Zamora experienced were denounced by both his family and international organizations. The journalist, for example, lost 37 pounds and because he only received light for one hour a day, his vision deteriorated. However, with the arrival of the new government of President Bernardo Arévalo, these have improved.

This was stated by Zamora himself in statements to the media on Feb. 21, during one of his scheduled hearings, which was then canceled. This was also confirmed by representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) who visited Zamora and spoke with authorities in the country on Feb. 12 and 13.

According to a statement from the IACHR, its representatives were monitoring compliance with precautionary measures that Zamora has had in force since 2003.

“He is the only journalist and beneficiary of precautionary measures who is currently being deprived of liberty in the country,” the statement said. “The IACHR notes that Zamora Marroquín was arrested in the context of dwindling judicial independence that was identified in the Commission's annual reports for 2021 and 2022. This context affects the right to freedom of expression and has created in Guatemala an atmosphere marked by censorship.”


Doubts for the new trial

In addition to the constant delays in the hearings scheduled for the different cases against Zamora, there are also doubts about how the new trial will be developed in the main case. According to Martínez de la Serna and the Trial Watch report, this new trial begins after the evidentiary phase, which means that the evidence and witnesses that were denied to Zamora's defense in the first trial will also not be able to be presented in this new one.

“He could not defend himself, he could not present evidence, so for the trial that has to be held again there is no indication that it will be fair because it begins, so to speak, in a phase of the process that has already been denounced and it has been demonstrated that it was not fair or in accordance with international standards,” Martínez de la Serna said.

“A retrial ordered by the Appellate Court, if based on the flawed decisions at the ‘intermediate stage,’ is also likely to be unfair and should not be pursued,” the Trial Watch report said.

Among the recommendations to the State of Guatemala, Trial Watch indicates that “Mr. Zamora should be immediately released” and all charges against him dismissed. Additionally, it said Zamora should be given “appropriate remedies and reparations for the violations he has endured.”

Likewise, it points out that the judicial actors who were involved in this process against Zamora must be investigated to “identify and address any potential violations of legal and ethical standards.”

Martínez de la Serna recognizes how the new government identifies irregularities in the Zamora case and others, but that it has wanted to maintain judicial independence and the division of power to “establish correct legal precedents.” However, he is emphatic in pointing out that the “only form of justice” for the journalist is for the “spurious case” against him to be terminated.

“It can be considered that he is a politically persecuted person and that he is hostage to a corrupt system,” Martínez de la Serna said.

“The money they have spent persecuting me is impressive. I think how easy the public prosecutor’s office and the State of Guatemala have spent about 20 million quetzales (about US $2.5 million) in their state terrorism policies to persecute me,” Zamora said upon leaving his canceled hearing on Feb. 21. “But you have to be patient and wait because there is no other choice.”

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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