Casa Alianza executive director Bruce Harris was acquitted on January 30, in Guatemala on criminal defamation charges, in a move welcomed by Human Rights Watch. The plaintiff in the case had requested a prison sentence and a fine of U.S.$ 125,000; instead, Harris was cleared of wrongdoing.

"The court’s ruling is a victory for freedom of expression," said Michael Bochenek, counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "Nobody should face criminal charges for speaking out on a matter of public concern."

The defamation charges stemmed from comments Harris made at a September 1997 press conference in which Casa Alianza and the Guatemalan attorney general presented the results of a joint investigation of irregular adoptions. After Harris accused a group of Guatemalan lawyers of involvement in the irregularities, one of the lawyers brought a private criminal action against him.

The Guatemalan penal code criminalizes speech that “dishonors, discredits, or disparages another person,” regardless of whether the statement is true. The most serious of these provisions carries a prison sentence of up to five years.

In addition to providing criminal penalties for defamation and disallowing truth as a defense, Guatemala places narrow limits on its constitutional right to the "free dissemination of ideas," which only the media enjoy. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled in 1999 that Harris did not benefit from the protection of that provision because he is not a journalist.

Criminal defamation laws are common in Latin America, and other cases pending in the inter-American system illustrate their potential for abuse. In one case now before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a candidate for Paraguay’s presidency received a four-month prison sentence for statements he made about another candidate in the course of his election campaign. In another case accepted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Panamanian attorney general obtained a criminal conviction against a journalist for criticizing him.

Human Rights Watch called on Guatemala to guarantee fully an individual’s right to freedom of expression, as protected by international treaties to which the country is a party. In particular, Guatemala should eliminate criminal penalties for defamation in cases that do not involve direct and immediate incitement to acts of violence, discrimination or hostility, Human Rights Watch said.