UN designation of Jose Rubén Zamora’s detention as “arbitrary” adds urgency to the need for his release following setback in Guatemalan courts

A key UN body has joined the growing international outcry for the release of jailed elPeriódico publisher Jose Rubén Zamora, after more than 700 days of detention. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomes this long-awaited opinion from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), which recognises the arbitrary nature of  Zamora’s detention and calls for his immediate release. The UNWGAD’s position sharply contrasts the recent refusal by a Guatemalan court to allow Zamora’s release to house arrest, highlighting the urgent need for increased international pressure to free Zamora.

On 2 July, an opinion adopted by the UNWGAD on 17 May was released, detailing serious concerns in the case of elPeriódico founder and publisher Jose Rubén Zamora, and concluding that the “appropriate remedy would be to immediately release Mr. Zamora” and to provide him with compensation.

“Mr Zamora’s detention was a result of the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression” the opinion read. Therefore, “no trial should be held.” The opinion noted that the “appropriate remedy would be to immediately release Mr Zamora” and “provide compensation,” adding that the Guatemalan government should “take appropriate measures against those responsible for violating his rights.”

"We welcome this crucial decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which confirms the arbitrary nature of Jose Rubén Zamora’s detention and strengthens the call for his immediate release. In light of conflicting recent moves by Guatemalan courts, it is clear that increased international pressure remains vital to the chances of securing freedom for Zamora before his situation deteriorates further. We call again for Zamora’s release without delay, and for an end to the blatant criminalisation of journalism in Guatemala.

Rebecca Vincent
RSF’s Director of Campaigns

This strong opinion by UNWGAD and its call for Zamora’s immediate release sharply contrasts the decision of Guatemala’s Second Chamber of Criminal Appeals on 27 June to refuse the 67-year-old publisher’s request for release to house arrest. RSF condemned this decision, which represents a setback to the domestic legal case following a prior victory on 15 May, when Guatemala’s Ninth Criminal Court granted Zamora’s request for substitutive measures — with the caveat that reciprocal decisions were needed in two other cases against him to allow for his release to house arrest. Zamora, meanwhile, remains jailed, a full eight months after his conviction on trumped-up charges of money laundering was overturned in October

These conflicting moves point to a schism within Guatemala’s turbulent judicial system. Since the inauguration of President Bernardo Arévalo in January, the judiciary has faced increasing pressure to end its legacy of systemic corruption. The UNWGAD is the latest international body to weigh in on the situation, following interventions in May by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has asked the Guatemalan government to provide regular updates on Zamora’s situation.

Zamora’s son, Jose Carlos Zamora, is expected to hold a press conference on the latest developments on 5 July at the Gabo Festival 2024 in Bogota, Columbia, where RSF representatives will also be present. Jose Rubén Zamora will be awarded the prestigious Gabo 2024 Award for Excellence in Journalism at the festival.

UNWGAD is a body of independent human rights experts that investigate cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, one of the foremost international authorities on such cases. The opinion was issued by four of its experts: Matthew Gillett (New Zealand), Ganna Yudkivska (Ukraine), Priya Gopalan (Malaysia), and Mumba Malila (Zambia). RSF has filed submissions with UNWGAD on dozens of cases of concern, and submitted a letter in support of the complaint filed by Zamora’s lawyers as part of RSF’s campaign to #FreeZamora. 

Guatemala is ranked 138th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2024 World Press Freedom Index.

138/ 180
Score : 42.28
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