How far would you go to defend justice? Would you be willing to sacrifice your safety, your reputation, or your job?
For inspiration, look no further than Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar of Guatemala, a 2014 recipient of the State Department’s International Woman of Courage award. As the recent president of one of two of Guatemala’s High Risk Court Tribunals, Yassmin Barrios has made a career of taking on the most difficult and politically-sensitive cases, despite personal risk.
Such cases have confronted high-profile corruption, organized crime and drug trafficking, and human rights abuses occurring during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-1996).
Most strikingly, in 2013, Barrios served as the presiding judge in the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. The trial represented the first time a former head of state was tried for genocide in his home country by the national judiciary. By initiating the judicial process against the former dictator, Barrios gave a voice to thousands of Ixil-Mayan victims, provided an important legal precedent for genocide cases worldwide, and demonstrated the importance of an independent judiciary.
However, Barrios pays a great personal price for her work and continues to face serious obstacles. Barrios has faced threats and intimidation, attacks on her and her home, an intense campaign to discredit her in the media, and now, as of April 2014, a year-long suspension of her judicial authority. Barrios’s suspension comes after a complaint against her by a lawyer who was involved in the Rios Montt trial, in a politically motivated move that undermines Guatemala’s independent judiciary.
AWIU is deeply saddened by the news of Judge Barrios’s suspension, and celebrates her tremendous courage to bring about justice in Guatemala.
Judge Barrios Aguilar at AWIU’s International Women of Courage Celebration in Washington, D.C. on March 4, 2014
The RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights issued the following statement on the suspension on April 11, 2014:
On behalf of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center), Kerry Kennedy, President of the RFK Center, and Santiago A. Canton, Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights, condemn the decision by the Honor Tribunal of the Guatemalan Bar Association (el Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala) to publicly admonish and suspend Dr. Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar for one year. The unprecedented ruling is an abuse of power by the Honor Tribunal, threatens judicial independence by punishing a respected and high-profile judge for her role in the conviction of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, and deepens the worrisome trend of deterioration of the rule of law in Guatemala.
As President of the High Risk Court of Guatemala, Judge Barrios has received international acclaim for her integrity and independence. She has ruled on cases regarding organized crime, corruption by high-level government officials, and grave human rights abuses by the military. Judge Barrios was granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2013 because of the risks she faces in hearing politically sensitive cases.
Notably, Judge Barrios presided over the historic trial of Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide in May 2013. Although this conviction was controversially overturned on procedural grounds, Judge Barrios has been widely praised by the international community for her diligence during the trial and for giving voice to indigenous victims of genocide in the courtroom.
“The message out of Guatemala is loud and clear: under the current administration, judicial authorities who demonstrate respect for human rights must be removed from office,” said Kerry Kennedy. “Just like Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who was forced out by the Constitutional Court in retaliation for prosecuting Ríos Montt, Judge Barrios has been punished for being brave enough to rule against the former dictator.”
The complaint against Judge Barrios was brought before the Guatemalan Bar Association’s Honor Tribunal by Moises Galindo, an established member of the defense team during the Ríos Montt genocide trial. Mr. Galindo argued that he was “humiliated” by the manner in which Judge Barrios ordered him to participate in trial proceedings. Mr. Galindo has previously brought frivolous complaints against judicial officials, including the recently deceased Supreme Court Justice César Barrientos, as highlighted in a report by the RFK Center.
Judges in Guatemala are subject to their own disciplinary regime, and the complaint against Judge Barrios was already ruled to be without merit a year ago by the competent judicial authority. Thus, the decision by the bar association is illegitimate and in violation of the principle against double jeopardy.
“The shameful decision by the Guatemalan Bar Association is contrary to international human rights norms and must be reversed,” said Santiago A. Canton. “The decision to annul the Ríos Montt trial, the removal from office of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, and now, the suspension of Judge Barrios, are a clear pattern of rapid deterioration of the rule of law in Guatemala.”
Judge Barrios Aguilar at the State Department award ceremony for the International Women of Courage in Washington, D.C. on March 4, 2014