Defending Justice: One lawyer’s perspective on the failed criminal justice system in Paraguay

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by Eric Krasnow, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations

For the past two years, RRVO, whose name is withheld for legal reasons, has sat in a jail cell without due process in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción. Torn away from her three-month-old son when she herself was still a teenager, RRVO’s incarceration has been characterized by unjust criminal proceedings and human rights violations. RRVO, along with eleven other peasant farmers, have been charged with crimes in connection to the massacre of peasants and policemen at Marina Kue on June 15, 2012.

Though the charges against the peasants are devised from tampered evidence and dubious land rights laws, a lack of due process have kept them behind bars for nearly two years. Furthermore even though eleven peasants died in the massacre, some via execution style murder and others due to denied medical attention, none of the police officers are under investigation for the human rights violations that were committed. In order to understand the arduous battle RRVO is fighting, CUSLAR met with her defense counsel and human rights activist Mirta Moragas Mereles.

 

CUSLAR: Who is RRVO and how did you come to defend her rights?

Mirta Moragas: RRVO is an adolescent girl who was imprisoned two years ago at the age of seventeen. RRVO was visiting the father of her three-month-old son, a leader of the peasant occupied territory of Marina Kue in the Curuguaty district Paraguay, the same day over 300 policemen arrived to evict the peasants from the contested land. Though she was just a visitor to Marina Kue, after the violence of that day RRVO found her imprisoned alongside the peasants who were occupying the land.

At first RRVO was given two public defenders. Unfortunately, these defenders did not have the girl’s interests in mind and actively persecuted her for her connection with the peasant occupation leader. RRVO, a shy girl who only speaks Guaraní, knew she was not being fairly represented and needed a change in defense. Through the coordinator of human rights in Paraguay my college Maria José Durán and I came to know her and become her defense counsel.

MirtaMoragas-14Apr14

Can you describe the charges against RRVO and the other peasant prisoners? What, if any, human rights have been violated?

All of the imprisoned peasants have been accused of three crimes; invasion of private property, criminal association, and attempted homicide. In most cases, they have now been imprisoned for two years without due process, even though the accusations against them are fraught with issues.

An important consideration for the charge invasion of private property is that it can only be brought against the prisoners if the land is, in fact, private. The main issue with this charge is that the “private owner” of Marina Kue, a wealthy and well-connected businessman by the name of Blas N. Riquelme, acquired it through illegal means. There are three pieces of evidence that demonstrate the land has been and remains public to this day. First, Riquelme has never proven that he has the title for the land. Second, the Navy effectively occupied the land for decades, which implies state ownership. And third, the former president of Paraguay previously designated the land for agrarian reform.

While there are four pending cases that contest this illegal acquisition, the Supreme Court of Paraguay is facing pressure from the state government to delay their verdict on these cases. The reason for this delay is clear: if the land is proven to be state owned, all invasion of private property charges must be dropped.

The attempted homicide charge also comes from inconclusive evidence that fails to take the details of the case into account. According to the state prosecutor, the twelve imprisoned peasants are facing charges of attempted homicide, as opposed to homicide, because it is impossible to tell which peasants actually killed the police officers.

One puzzling aspect to this charge is that, of the twelve peasants facing this charge, nearly half were not even holding weapons during the massacre at Marina Kue, so it would have been impossible for them to murder or attempt to murder the police officers.

Additionally, many of the peasants who were armed in the conflict were holding firearms that did not function. However, these peasants have been unable to prove their innocence because the state prosecutor assigned to the case has omitted, tampered with or destroyed the evidence that sheds light on who actually shot the police officers.

In the most clear example of selectively chosen evidence, the state prosecutor of the case only used testimony from police officers when charging the peasants and omitted all peasant eye-witness accounts. We also know that the state has destroyed evidence crucial to the investigation. During the massacre, a police helicopter was seen and photographed circling Marina Kue. Every police helicopter has a video camera attached to its base – and the helicopter over Marina Kue would have shot footage of the incident. However, the helicopter and video camera have disappeared, leading many to suspect corruption in the judicial system.

Can you describe any other human rights violations that have been committed by the police and the state?

In addition to the tampering and destroying of evidence, the most egregious human rights violations were the on-site executions of the peasants at the hands of the police. While evidence indicates that the police who perished in the firefight all died at the start of the battle, many of the deceased peasants were executed at close range via gunshots in the back of the head. These peasants were clearly executed after the main battle stopped yet there have been no investigations into this police brutality. Furthermore, many injured peasants were denied the same medical attention offered to police. The wounded peasants were not allowed on ambulances and were not taken to proper medical facilities.

There has been a clear combination of human rights violations committed by the police the day of the massacre as well as by the state throughout the judiciary process of the peasants. The investigation is so biased and so corrupted that the entire criminal justice system of Paraguay is delegitimized.

 

How has RRVO’s status as a juvenile affected her imprisonment?

According the Paraguayan law, adults are assumed to have the capacity to know if they are breaking the law. For example, if the land at Marina Kue is deemed private, adult peasants occupying the land are, under the law, aware that they are committing an illegal act. However, the adolescent process is different. Under Paraguayan law juveniles are not assumed to have the capacity to know that they are committing a crime. Rather it is the responsibility of the state to prove the child’s knowledge of the law.

In juvenile court, RRVO was neither asked nor ordered to receive a psychological analysis to prove this understanding. Now, two years later, it is impossible to say what her level of understanding and maturity was on the day of the massacre. In other words, RRVO’s status as an adolescent was completely ignored by the courts. This failure of her due process is why I am calling for an absolute annulment in the case of RRVO.

 

So where do we go from here?

The case of Marina Kue has deep implications for land rights, peasant rights and justice. For this reason all of Latin America is watching. At this moment, what we need is the emotional, political and moral support to defeat the powerful state actors who have had a history of repressing their people. We need to talk about what happened at Marina Kue to raise international awareness. This will put pressure on the Paraguayan government to ensure the state does not abuse its power like this again.

 

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