The Failure of the Paraguayan Judiciary

In 2012, Campesinos (Farmers) of Curuguaty in Paraguay organised an occupation of the area as a form of protest against limited land rights on a region that had traditionally been theirs. On 15th June,350 police officers were ordered to evict them, leading to a clash that left 11 peasants and 6 policemen dead.

While the fatal confrontation is newsworthy enough, the judicial process that followed, centred around the prosecution for manslaughter of 11 peasants, is rife with hints of a deep corruption that plagues the country. It resulted in convictions of up to 35-year jail sentences for each accused campesino, despite the fact that they had all received very generic accusations and there was no hard evidence of their wrongdoings. No police were even indicted – a fact pointing to the dishonesty of the judicial process.

Oscar Ayala, executive secretary of Codehupy, a human rights organisation, stated that the prosecution even opposed the defence’s request for an autopsy –to which Liliana Alcatraz, a state prosecutor, responded by saying that there was no need for this as the cause of death was already known. She then explained that, while it was impossible to make a verifiable connection between the campesinos and the fatal shots received by the 6 police officers, “our system says that you can prove a fact through various methods.”

What is most worrying about these events is the legal interference by state bureaucracies that violated what is most sacred about a democracy: respect for the constitution. This is clearly reflected in both the experience of Gustavo Bonzi, a magistrate in the department of Concepción, and the government’s bypassing of international legal obligations.

The Articulation for Curuguaty, an observant group of the judicial process involving the 11 campesinos, stressed that the witness declarations made by police officers, forensic medics and ministry functionaries were contradictory, yet this did not serve as a deterrent for convicting the peasants to jail.

More relevantly, this observant group highlighted how the Paraguayan state has omitted important observations of the judicial process by international organisations such as the UN human rights committee, violating the supranational judicial rule that is imposed by the current constitution.

Indeed, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said last July, 2016 that “the conviction of 11 peasants in the Curuguaty case following a trial that allegedly did not respect judicial guarantees is deeply troubling”

Furthermore, in an unrelated case, Bonzi saw his career end following his acquittal of 12 campesinos accused without evidence of aiding the ‘Paraguayan People’s Army’ guerrilla, a clandestine group of dissidents that have killed 50 people in the last two years.

After asking for an Appeal Tribunal to review the case, Bonzi saw his magistrate license being immediately taken away from him. He is sure that this was a message to other judges questioning the official discourse of the government’s elite, as a way of intimidating them into accepting violations of any judicial process. Bonzi assures that “it’s the same with the Curuguaty case, I knew they’d find a way to condemn the campesinos.”

All these violations of constitutional law, international legal responsibilities and abuse of power by governmental bureaucracies clearly reflect a deterioration of democracy in the country. As Oscar Ayala said, “we’re reaching a point where most Paraguayans have lost their trust in the justice system… This undermines our whole democracy.”

Pablo de Miguel

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