Press Release

IACHR Takes Case Involving Guatemala to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

April 24, 2018

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I/A Court H.R.) in Case 12,452, Tirso Román Valenzuela Ávila, with regard to Guatemala.

The case deals with a series of violations of due process committed in the framework of the criminal proceedings in which the victim was tried for murder, a process that led to him being sentenced to death. It also deals with acts of torture perpetrated against Mr. Valenzuela Ávila when he was arrested, after he was recaptured following his first escape from prison in June 1998, and again after he was recaptured following a second escape from prison in June 2001. The case also deals with Mr. Valenzuela Ávila’s extrajudicial execution following a third escape, in 2005.

Regarding violations of due process during criminal proceedings, the IACHR established that the State of Guatemala violated the legality principle with respect to the presumption of innocence, since Tirso Román Valenzuela Ávila was found criminally liable for the crime of murder and sentenced to death based on the concept of “dangerousness.” The organs of the Inter-American system have already established that this concept is not compatible with the legality principle, because it is a manifestation of actor-based criminal law rather than act-based criminal law. The IACHR also established that the State violated the victim’s rights to appeal the decision and to request judicial protection, and his right to life for sentencing him to death based on standards that are incompatible with the principle of legality in criminal law and with the presumption of innocence and in violation of the victim’s right to an appeal.

Further, the Commission concluded that the State inflicted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment on the victim, because he was awaiting execution for more than six years, which amounts to the so-called “death row phenomenon.” In addition, the IACHR established that state agents subjected the victim to physical, psychological and sexual violence which amounted to torture, and that the Guatemalan State has, to date, failed to carry out an investigation into the matter. The Commission established that there is sufficient evidence to prove that, following his escape from prison in 2005, the victim was extrajudicially executed in December 2006, and thus that the State violated his right to life. Further, the criminal investigation into the victim’s death has been neither diligent nor effective in clarifying those events in a timely manner.

In its Merits Report, the Commission recommended that Guatemala make full reparation for the human rights violations found by the IACHR, for both material and non-material harm; investigate the acts of torture and the extrajudicial execution in a diligent, effective manner and within a reasonable period of time, identify the perpetrators and impose appropriate punishments; adopt measures to ensure that, in regulations and in practice, persons convicted in criminal proceedings have a remedy available to them before a hierarchical authority to allow for full review of the conviction; adopt measures aimed at training the security forces regarding the absolute prohibition of torture and regarding the use of force in the context of operations to capture persons who have escaped from detention centers; and adopt measures to strengthen processes for investigating, prosecuting and punishing state agents involved in acts of torture or in human rights violations in the context of operations to capture fugitives.

Regarding the death penalty, the Commission values the fact that the death penalty has not been applied by judicial authorities for more than 17 years, and that, for more than a decade, individuals who had previously been sentenced to the death penalty have had their sentences commuted. The Commission also values the fact that, for several years, the executive has taken measures to prevent the reactivation of the death penalty in Guatemala. As a result of actions taken by the executive and judicial branches, more than 17 years have passed with the death penalty being neither applied nor carried out in Guatemala. The Commission understands that, in practice, the Guatemalan State has made progress toward abolishing the death penalty, which is consistent with the spirit of the American Convention on the subject. Therefore, considering what the IACHR indicated in its report “The Death Penalty in the Inter-American Human Rights System: From Restrictions to Abolition,” the Commission recommended in its Merits Report that the State of Guatemala adopt any measures necessary to make domestic legislation consistent with the country’s practices, so it may continue on the path toward abolishing the death penalty.

The Inter-American Commission submitted the case to the Court’s jurisdiction on April 19, 2018, in the understanding that Guatemala had failed to comply with the recommendations held in the Merits Report.

This case will allow the Court to deepen its jurisprudence on the death penalty, specifically regarding the ban on using a person’s “dangerousness”—a concept taken from actor-based criminal law—as a criterion to impose the death penalty. This case will contribute to raising this issue’s profile and to supporting a process that State authorities launched years ago, with a view to abolishing the death penalty in Guatemala.  This case will further allow the Court to consolidate standards regarding due process in criminal proceedings, particularly the right to appeal a court’s decision through some mechanism that allows for a full review. The Court will further be able to deepen its jurisprudence on sexual torture and extrajudicial executions.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 091/18