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Supporters of the Liberation of the People (MLP) political party protest that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal denied the candidacy of their vice president hopeful Jordan Rodas in Guatemala City, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. The sign reads in Spanish "We demand transparent elections." The Electoral Tribunal has barred two candidates from running for president in the elections set for June 2023. © (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 (Washington, D.C.) – The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office’s seemingly arbitrary criminal proceedings against a presidential candidate threatens free and fair elections, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said today.

On March 20, 2023, the special prosecutor against impunity, Rafael Curruchiche, said that his office had asked the Supreme Court to strip the immunity of the center-right candidate, Edmond Mulet, to investigate him for “obstruction of justice” because he had publicly criticized a judge’s decision, on February 28, to investigate nine journalists and filed a criminal complaint against the judge. The investigation against the journalists is related to their coverage of the criminal proceedings against José Rubén Zamora, a journalist who has been in prison since July 2022 under alleged money laundering accusations.

“Instead of dropping abusive investigations against independent journalists who are doing their job, Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office is investigating a presidential candidate who opposed the investigations,” said Juan Pappier, acting deputy Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “These criminal proceedings appear to have no basis and to be part of a broader effort to undermine the fairness of the upcoming elections.”

Concerned governments, including from Latin America, Europe and the United States, should publicly condemn the authorities’ repeated efforts to arbitrarily exclude presidential candidates, including through abusive and apparently politically motivated criminal charges.

The US State Department has issued sanctions against Curruchiche as corrupt and undemocratic. He also asked the Electoral Tribunal to bar Mulet’s presidential candidacy, alleging that he had violated the prohibition under Guatemalan law of campaigning before the electoral process officially begins.

Candidates often violate the law about campaigning outside of the electoral period. The Electoral Tribunal authorities usually impose fines on them and have rarely excluded them from running. Guatemalan authorities should ensure that any charge resulting from alleged violations of campaign rules is proportionate to the violation and applied equally to all candidates.

The Electoral Tribunal has in recent weeks effectively barred Thelma Cabrera, an Indigenous left-wing leader, and Roberto Arzú, a right-wing candidate, from running for president. These decisions are based on dubious grounds, threaten political rights, and should urgently be reviewed.

International observers, including from the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS), should thoroughly examine electoral conditions, including the exclusion of candidates and the use of spurious criminal charges against them, and press the Guatemalan authorities to respect democratic values.

Concerned governments, including the United States and those in Europe and Latin America, should monitor the electoral process closely, express concern over efforts to bar presidential candidates, and publicly call for free and fair elections. They should also call on Guatemalan authorities to investigate allegations of unlawful financing of political campaigns, including by businesspeople and organized crime.

“As Guatemalan authorities increase their efforts to exclude presidential candidates, the international community should urgently step up their efforts to protect the country’s democracy,” said Ana María Méndez-Dardón, Central America director at WOLA.

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