Guatemala court upholds decision to oust crusading prosecutor, angering human rights groups

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Guatemala's Supreme Court upheld its ruling that the country's crusading attorney general must step down in May, seven months before her term was to end, drawing complaints from human rights activists who back her efforts to prosecute civil war-era military officials.

Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz had asked the top court to reconsider its original ruling, which supported a claim that Paz's four-year term technically began in May 2010, when the official she replaced was appointed, and not in December 2010, when she took the post.

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold that ruling Friday was condemned by human rights groups which said it favored opponents of Paz, who since assuming leadership of the public ministry has vigorously pursued military officials and organized crime suspects.

She has put four civil war-era generals on the stand for charges of crimes against humanity and genocide after their cases had been stalled for decades. Her highest profile case has been the trial of former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt.

Rios Montt, who ruled in 1982-83, was sentenced to 80 years in prison after being convicted of knowing about the slaughter of 1,771 Ixil Mayans during the civil war. But his conviction was annulled in a high court decision that many saw as a sign of the lingering influence of the wartime military and its backers.

Jorge Santos, a member of Convergence for Human Rights, which brings together about a dozen Guatemalan human rights groups, criticized Friday's ruling.

"We believe the court's decision doesn't do anything to defend the Constitution and instead works in favor of vested interests that want to maintain impunity," Santos said.

Paz is also supported by the United States, which provides millions in aid to Guatemala, for her reputation for staying above the country's rampant public corruption.

U.S. Ambassador Arnold Chacon said in a statement this week that Paz is "an example of an honest, capable public servant of integrity."

On Wednesday, the high court ordered Congress to immediately convene a session to form a commission to pick a shortlist of candidates to replace her. Lawmakers met Thursday but couldn't agree to create the commission and the discussion was delayed until Monday.

Paz has also pushed for international training of prosecutors to carry out more-scientific prosecutions, which has garnered her support from the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a United Nations-backed independent body that has 50 international prosecutors, police officers and attorneys charged with investigating a limited number of sensitive cases.

The commission has successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases but its longer-term mission is strengthening the attorney general's office and other state institutions before the commission leaves Guatemala, expected after 2015.

The constitutional challenge to oust Paz in May was brought by lawyer and businessman Ricardo Sagastume. He said his decision to petition the court was personal because that's what a law governing prosecutors dictates.

Sagastume is a former director of Guatemala's Industry Chamber and was a member of the National Convergence Front Party, which was founded by active and former military officials.