A Guatemalan court on Wednesday convicted one of the country’s best-known journalists of money laundering and sentenced it to six years in prison in a case that press freedom groups say had sent a chilling message to the country’s reporters.
Prosecutors who brought the case against José Rubén Zamora, a journalist and businessman, had demanded a longer-than-usual prison sentence of 40 years, which they said was justified because he “disrespected the authorities”. The court acquitted him on Wednesday of charges of blackmail and influence.
Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director of the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), said: “The shameful conviction and imprisonment of Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora are strong evidence of the erosion of freedom of expression in the country. Guatemalan officials must end the absurd charade of criminal proceedings against him.”
The detention of Zamora, a leading government critic whose newspaper reported extensively on corruption, sparked concern and condemnation from international human rights groups.
He has said the charges against him were brought in retaliation for stories published by his newspaper about alleged corruption by President Alejandro Giammattei’s government. The president denies any role in the case.
The trial sparked fear among the country’s reporters, some of whom also work while under criminal investigation. According to collective #NoNosCallaran (#TheyWillNotSilenceUs), more than 20 journalists have fled the country in the past year.
Zamora told the Financial Times in the days before the verdict that the country was at risk of becoming a “tyrannical, fascist dictatorship”. He has said he will appeal any conviction.
He has claimed the case, which centered around Q300,000 ($38,300) in cash that prosecutors said was laundered, was plagued with irregularities. Zamora was arrested within days of the original complaint and the case was completed in just a year in a country where proceedings often take years. Prosecutors also filed cases against his lawyers, relatives and other reporters for his newspaper.
Before the verdict, Stephen Townley, legal director of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative, said Zamora’s lawyers were paralyzed from day one.
“International standards require governments to ensure that lawyers can perform their duties without harassment or harassment,” he said.
Prosecutors said after the verdict that the trial complied with all formalities and constitutional principles.
In the same verdict, former prosecutor Samari Gómez was acquitted of charges of leaking information after serving nearly a year in prison.
The US government has previously expressed concern about key figures in Guatemala’s justice system. The nation’s attorney general and top anti-corruption prosecutors are on Washington’s list of undemocratic and corrupt actors.