A judge in the eastern city of Chiquimula renewed Internet journalist Vasni Vásquez’s pre-trial detention order when he appeared in court yesterday on a charge of participating in an abduction that he says he was trying to cover. Reporters Without Borders calls for his release in the absence of any evidence against him.
Police used violence to arrest Vásquez during an operation on 9 April to release a kidnap victim he claims to know. The presenter of a Web TV programme for young people called Q’Rollo, Vásquez says he rushed to the scene of the police operation when someone reported on Facebook that it was taking place.
Although he identified himself as a journalist and had accreditation from the Chiquimula Journalists Network (RCS) and although the five other suspects arrested in the case deny his involvement, the police continue to insist he was one of the kidnappers. He is currently in hospital, apparently still being treated for injuries received at the time of his arrest, the RCS told the Guatemalan press freedom organization Cerigua.
Vásquez was formally placed in pre-trial detention on 18 May on a charge of “kidnapping, illicit association and conspiracy.” He was originally due to have appeared on court on 30 May but the hearing was postponed twice.
He says he is innocent and has accused the police of conducting a negligent investigation. His lawyers have in vain asked the prosecutor’s office to produce certain evidence which they say will demonstrate his innocence. Although he has been held for two months, prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence demonstrating his guilt.
“As a journalist, I think this case that I am in the process of living through is an attempt to intimidate the press and that there is no other motive,” Vásquez said in a message he sent to Reporters Without Borders.
Reporters Without Borders points out that, according to Article 259 of the Guatemalan code of criminal procedure, pre-trial detention is an exceptional measure that can be envisaged only when there are reasonable grounds for thinking that a defendant committed a crime or participated in one, and when there is a risk that the defendant could try to elude justice.
In the absence of evidence against Vásquez, Reporters Without Borders calls for his immediate release and demands that the authorities conduct an impartial investigation. Vásquez says he is ready to cooperate with the judicial authorities.
According to the information available to Reporters Without Borders, two journalists are currently in prison in Latin America as a direct result of their journalistic activities. They are Paul Garay Ramírez and Oswaldo Pereyra Moreno, who are being held in Peruvian jails on defamation charges. Pereyra is due to be freed this month on completing a one-year jail sentence.