One of Guatemala’s most prominent judges faces the possibility of losing his immunity from legal action in a case that he claims is meant to intimidate the independent judges in a country whose judicial system is widely seen as under attack.
Guatemala’s Supreme Court on Wednesday was expected to receive an investigator's report on a 2019 traffic confrontation between Judge Pablo Xitumul and a police officer, both of whom accuse the other of abuse of authority.
The court could remove the immunity from prosecution granted to judges, opening Xitumul to legal action by people he has sentenced to prison — a group that includes numerous powerful figures, including former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
The Supreme Court often decides such cases on the day they are submitted.
The judge received threats following an 80-year sentence for genocide he imposed in 2013 on Rios Montt — which was later overturned by the country's Constitutional Court . The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered the government take measures to protect Xitumul and other judges on Guatemala s High Risk court division.
He claims opponents are seizing upon the 2019 traffic incident to send a message to other officials who act against the corrupt and powerful.
Police had stopped Xitumul’s vehicle in front of his home, saying it seemed suspicious, and told him to get out so they could search it.
The judge, who had his family inside the vehicle refused, saying he had done nothing wrong.
The disagreement led to to insults and a struggle, in which an officer grabbed Xitumul by the neck. Following the incident, Xitumul reported the officer for abuse of authority and the police reported the judge for the same, and for obstructing an officer.
Prosecutors pursued the police claim against Xitumul while seeking to dismiss the judge’s claim against police.
The case comes at a moment when Guatemala’s justice system appears to be under attack from within its own ranks, as well as from other elements of the country’s political and economic elite.
Human rights groups and the U.S. government have expressed concern about attempts to interfere with anti-corruption efforts and to place compromised figures on the country's top courts.
Guatemala's government in 2019 forced out a U.N.-organized anti-corruption mission that had helped prosecute numerous powerful figures. Since then, prosecutors who had worked with the commission and judges who heard its cases have faced growing pressure.
Juan Francisco Sandoval, former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, fled to the United States in July after being removed from his post by the attorney general. He had been investigating corruption allegations involving the president, and like Xitumul, had faced a barrage of complaints filed by those he prosecuted.
Xitumul said he believes high-ranking officials — including some members of the Supreme Court — want to strip his immunity to punish him for going after corruption.
“It’s revenge,” Xitumul said, as well as “a message for the High-Risk judges for being objective, impartial and independent.”
Xitumul said that he has been sued more than 30 times. If he loses his immunity, there is a long line of people coming for him.