Guatemala Free Press-Justice for Raul Figueroa Sarti

August 18, 2009

PEN PRESS RELEASE: Crackdown on Free Expression in Guatemala threatens Publisher of Books on Genocide and Human Rights

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — figueroafreepress @ 12:05 pm

For Immediate Release:  August 18, 2009

Crackdown on Free Expression in Guatemala threatens Publisher of
Books on Genocide and Human Rights

Human rights advocates and writers throughout the Americas, including the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, are condemning the conviction by a Guatemalan court of independent publisher Raúl Figueroa Sarti.  Figueroa Sarti is currently under house arrest after being sentenced on August 6th to a year in prison and a heavy fine on trumped up copyright-violation charges.  Expressing fear that the loss of his publishing house will “gravely impact” Central American literature, social science, and political commentary, advocates and writers urge the Guatemalan attorney general to reverse the attempt to silence a powerful voice of dissent and ensure the physical safety of Mr. Figueroa.

“Another human rights defender is under attack in Guatemala – this time a defender of the right to ideas, free thought and free expression,” said Kate Doyle, Senior Analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington.  “The outrageous conviction of Figueroa is part of a frightening pattern of harassment and intimidation targeting the publisher.”

Figueroa’s press, F & G Editores, is the leading publisher of books that spark political and social debate in Central America. These include the 12-volume report of the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), the Guatemalan truth commission established by the Oslo Accords, as well as a number of other books detailing human rights abuses during the civil war, and in the present day.  These include works by the Myrna Mack Foundation, the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala, the National Union of Guatemalan Women, and the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy (SEDEM).

It was this bravery that first introduced Figueroa to his wife, Dr. Victoria Sanford.  An American citizen who is a professor of anthropology at Lehman College and CUNY’s Graduate Center, Sanford has spent decades studying genocide, corruption, and violence against women in Guatemala. They became acquainted in 2003, when Figueroa was the only publisher in Guatemala brave enough to publish one of Sanford’s books, Violencia y Genocidio en Guatemala (Violence and Genocide in Guatemala).  The couple’s professional relationship developed into a personal one, and they were married in 2005.  Sanford lives in New York with the couple’s daughter, Valentina.

Now Figueroa and F & G Editores are paying the price of bravery: a politically-motivated prosecution on charges of copyright violation.   The charges were brought by government employee and sometime-author and photographer Mardo Arturo Escobar, who accused Figueroa of publishing his photograph as cover art on a 2006 novel without permission.  Though Escobar initially claimed to have learned of the photograph’s use when he saw the book in a shop window, he recanted his charges when faced with evidence that he himself was the one who had initiated the image’s publication. Eventually, he admitted on the record that no crime had taken place, and stipulated for the court that he had given F & G Editores permission to use the image.

The prosecution was undeterred by that development, however, and pressed on with the case.  Figueroa was convicted on August 6th, and sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 50,000 quetzales. (Approximately $6,000 U.S. dollars).  Though authorities suspended his prison sentence in exchange for an additional fine of 25 quetzals per day, they have placed him under house arrest.

“This conviction shows the corruption of the judicial system as well as the great fragility of Guatemalan democracy and citizen rights of expression that are easily usurped,” explains Figueroa.  “It reveals the criminalizing strategy used by those who do not care about peace or justice.”

According to the Washington Office on Latin America, “WOLA believes that the exculpatory evidences shows that Mr. Figeroa’s sentence lacks firm legal backing,” states WOLA Senior Associate for Citizen Security Adriana Beltran. “We encourage the corresponding authorities in Guatemala’s Attorney General’s office to support his appeal.”

Figueroa’s family, friends, and colleagues are gravely concerned for his physical safety. According to Francisco Goldman, author of The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, “This is clearly a corrupt attempt to silence and break Guatemala’s most courageous editor publisher, cynically disguised as a proper legal proceeding.  In Guatemala, political assassinations – and the sentence against Raúl is a new kind of Guatemalan ‘assassination’ – are often sinister works of theater, with complicit judges playing supporting or even starring roles.” Doyle at the National Security Archive agrees: “Guatemalan authorities must not only reverse this travesty masquerading as a legal decision, but take immediate steps to guarantee Figueroa’s physical security.”

This conviction is a worrying new chapter in Guatemala’s history of repression and violence, in which citizens with the audacity to speak truth to power have been jailed, attacked, or worse. “Raúl Figueroa Sarti’s persecution by the Guatemalan government speaks not only to the fragility of free expression but also to the power of his work. His many friends and colleagues in the world of publishing are watching this case closely—concerned for his safety and for the health of F&G Editores,” explained Marc Favreau, editorial director of The New Press.

Sixty-five Central American writers have issued a letter of support, condemning the prosecution as “an attack on F & G Editores” that “would gravely impact the development of Central American presses and, as a result, the creation of literary texts.”  The writers urge the Guatemalan government to reverse the conviction and free Figueroa, so that this episode “will pass on in history only as a failed attempt to violate the liberty of creativity and the expression of thought.”  As well, human rights activists throughout the Americas joined in condemning Figueroa’s prosecution.  Iduvina Hernandez, Director of Guatemalan human rights organization SEDEM (Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in a Democracy), has decried the conviction as a “legal monstrosity,” and called for it to be reversed.  A petition circulated by Human Rights First of Washington and New York has been signed by more than 1,500 advocates, scholars, and writers since August 11.

“We are deeply disturbed by this attempt to jail one of Guatemala’s most courageous publishers on spurious copyright infringement charges,” said Larry Siems, Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center. “We are shocked by the court’s refusal to examine the full record and recognize exonerating evidence, and fear the proceedings provided a pretext for silencing both Raúl Figueroa Sarti and F & G Editores. We stand with Mr. Figueroa, and call on Guatemalan authorities to move quickly to reverse this terribly flawed conviction.”

Guatemalan novelist Arturo Arias, who won an Academy Award for screenwriting in 1985, concurs:  “Given the nature of impunity, corruption, blackmail, the dark forces operating behind the cloak of democracy and the rule of law continue to exercise their will in Guatemala in a series of bizarre gestures,” he said, adding, “A decade ago, they assassinated a Human Rights Catholic bishop. Today, they attempt to close the only independent press in Guatemala, the most important publishing outlet for the entire Central American region. We have to act before courageous editor Raúl Figueroa Sarti, who has struggled with perseverance, patience, sacrifice and courage to keep Guatemala’s dissident voices in print, pays for his independence and willingness to work on behalf of human rights issues with jail… or worse. Should his efforts be silenced, Guatemala would recede to the ghastly state of affairs of the 1980s.”

Larry Siems, PEN American Center,

Dr. Victoria Sanford


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