ICJ urges government to investigate death threats against prosecutor

The ICJ today wrote to the Government of Guatemala expressing deep concern about death threats made against public prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig. 

Mr. Zeissig, who won an unprecedented murder trial against members of Guatemala’s armed forces, was the second prosecutor in the trial who was forced to flee the country.


3 August 2001

Dear Mr. President,

The ICJ is deeply concerned about the case of Mr. Leopoldo Zeissig, the lead prosecutor in the trials of members of Guatemala’s armed forces and others accused of killing Bishop Gerardi. Mr. Zeissig was forced to flee after being subjected to numerous death threats. He had taken over the case from Celvin Galindo, the former prosecutor who had also fled after receiving death threats.

As you know, on 8 June, Mr. Zeissig won 30-year sentences in the murder trials of Col. Disrael Lima Estrada and his son Captain Byron Lima; the former presidential bodyguard, Jose Obdulio Villaneuva, and a Catholic priest, Mario Orantes. They were accused of murdering Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera two days after he released a report (“Guatemala: Nunca Mas”), bringing to light human rights violations committed by the military during the Guatemalan civil war.

Throughout the trial, Mr. Zeissig received a series of death threats and was under constant surveillance. In his resignation letter, Mr. Zeissig referred to these death threats and also to the fact that the Attorney General, Adolfo Gonzalez, had not fulfilled his promise to transfer Mr. Zeissig once the trial was over. In fact, the Attorney General reportedly assigned Mr. Zeissig to the case on appeal, which was further cause for concern for the prosecutor’s life.

Mr. Zeissig was clearly threatened due to the fact that he was fulfilling his prosecutorial functions as required. According to the 1990 United Nations Guidelines on the Role of Prosecutors, Article 15, “Prosecutors shall give due attention to the prosecution of crimes committed by public officials, particularly corruption, abuse of power, grave violations of human rights and other crimes recognized by international law and, where authorized by law or consistent with local practice, the investigation of such offenses.”

The Government of Guatemala has the duty to protect Mr. Zeissig in discharging his functions. Article 4 the above Guidelines states that, “States shall ensure that prosecutors are able to perform their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, improper interference or unjustified exposure to civil, penal or other liability” .

Furthermore, the Government has the obligation to protect Mr. Zeissig and his family as indicated in Article 5, “Prosecutors and their families shall be physically protected by the authorities when their personal safety is threatened as a result of the discharge of prosecutorial functions” .

The ICJ respectfully requests the Government of Guatemala to immediately conduct an impartial investigation into the death threats made against Mr. Zeissig and bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime.

We would be grateful if you would keep us informed as to all measures you intend to take in this case. Thank you for your urgent attention to this matter.

I have the honor to remain,

Yours sincerely,

Louise Doswald-Beck
Secretary General

H.E. Alfonso Portillo Cabrera
Presidente de la Republica de Guatemala
Dirrecion Casa Presidencial
Sexta A venida A 4-18, Zona 1
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Fax: (00 52)

Cc: H.E. Antonio Arenales Forno
Permanent Mission of Guatemala
Chemin de Sous-Bois, 21
1202 Geneva
Fax: (0052) 733 14 29

H.E. Bayron Barrientos
Sr. Ministro de Governacion
6 A venida 4-64, Zona 4
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Fax: (00 52) 362-0240

Mr. Julio Arango Escobar
Sr. Procurador de Derechos Humanos
12 Avenida 12-72, Zona 1
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Fax: (00 52)

Gabriel Orellana Rojas
Sr. Canciller
Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores
Avenida La Reforma 4-47, Zona 10
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Fax: (0052) 331 8410

Ricardo Alvarado Ortigoza
Comision Presidencial de Derechos Humanos
13 Calle 15-33, Zona 13
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Fax: (00 52) 334 1615

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