Nina Lakhani. The Guardian. February 19, 2014

Photo by Lisa Rankin- Guatemala’s detained and disappeared during the 36 year armed conflict

War criminals, corrupt officials and drug traffickers let out a collective sigh of relief in Guatemala last week after another controversial ruling by the constitutional court appeared to fly in

the face of justice and accountability.

Claudia Paz y Paz, the country’s first female – and easily most
effective – attorney general, will be forced to leave office seven
months early after the court ruled in favour of a dubious technical
challenge brought by corporate lawyer and businessman Ricardo

Paz y Paz, 47, took up her role as top prosecutor in December 2010 at
a time when impunity hovered at 97% and most Guatemalans had little
faith in the justice system. Paz y Paz replaced Conrado Reyes, who was
ousted in June 2010 after 17 days in office, amid widespread
allegations of ties to organised crime.

Since then, she has worked to reverse the tradition of impunity by
fearlessly taking on Guatemala’s crime world: army generals accused of
human rights abuses during the 36-year civil war; corrupt police
officers and mayors; murderers; and leaders of organised crime.
Victims of crime have begun to hope that the justice system might just
hold perpetrators to account.

Best known was the genocide trial and conviction last May of the
former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt for his role in massacres of
Ixil Mayans in the 1980s. The verdict was annulled by the
constitutional court amid suspicions of political forces at play.
Nevertheless, it sent a clear message that no criminal was too big or
too powerful for Paz y Paz to take on.

This dogged pursuit of justice and human rights has won her numerous
international accolades, including nomination for the Nobel peace
prize in 2013. But it has also won her enemies closer to home among
those who fear prosecution and further disruption to the status quo.

So why is she out? Paz y Paz was appointed after the Reyes scandal, at
the end of an election process lasting several months. The
presidential order appointing her in December 2010 explicitly stated
that she was to serve a four-year term. The constitution also states
that the attorney general’s term lasts four years.

But Sagastume persuaded the court, on his second attempt, that Paz y
Paz should leave in May – four years after her predecessor Reyes was
appointed. Sagastume, whose father was president of the supreme court
during Ríos Montt’s government, successfully argued that, technically,
Paz y Paz was fulfilling Reyes’s term because congress had failed to
issue an order for the subsequent election process.

“A hyper-technical and bogus argument,” according to Nik Steinberg
from Human Rights Watch, who told the Guardian that the court’s
inexplicable about-face suggested the influence of outside forces.

The decision certainly reflects the bad old days when the justice
system was controlled, or at least heavily influenced, by the
political, business and criminal elites, who were sometimes difficult
to tell apart.

Sagastume, a former director of Guatemala’s chamber of industry and a
member of the National Convergence Front party, which was founded by
active and former military officials, insists he pursued the case for
constitutional and not political reasons.

Paz y Paz’s early exit matters. The retrial of Ríos Montt was one of
several high-profile cases she was expected to oversee before leaving
office at the end of this year.

Who replaces her is therefore important, and all eyes are on the
selection process. First, a committee of representatives from the
country’s powerful law schools, lawyers association and various
judicial offices must select a shortlist of six candidates to present
to the president.

The lack of transparency within the shortlisting process is a concern.
Neither candidates nor nominating committee members are obliged to
reveal financial, personal or political connections, which would help
to identify potential conflicts of interest. The committee ranks each
candidate using a system of its choice and does not have to provide
any explanation about why each person is rejected or selected, just a
final grade.

In the end, President Otto Pérez Molina will have the final say. It
was widely suspected that testimonies implicating the president, a
former army commander, led to the annulment of the genocide conviction
against Ríos Montt. Pérez Molina has the opportunity to put those
suspicions to bed by electing the best possible candidate as the next
attorney general, someone who will continue to strengthen the rule of
law and accountability regardless of external pressures.

Paz y Paz could throw her hat in the ring for a second term, but those
who know her doubt she would participate in an election she believes
to be unjust.

The next few months are critical for Guatemala as its politicians
choose not only the next attorney general, but also judges to serve in
the highest courts – the supreme and constitutional – and the
electoral commission. These high-ranking judicial positions will
largely determine whether Guatemala continues to stride forward on
justice and accountability, or goes backwards. The stakes are high.