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A Crisis in Guatemala, Abetted by the U.N.
The Wall Street Journal
Mary Anastasia O’Grady
Sunday, April 22, 2018

In the struggle to defeat transnational crime in Central America, the U.S. is financing a United Nations prosecutorial body in Guatemala. Yet these U.N. prosecutors are thumbing their noses at the rule of law and seem to be using their power to politicize the Guatemalan judiciary.

This is dividing and destabilizing a pivotal democracy in the region. The fragile Guatemalan state is in the crosshairs of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Gen. Raúl Castro. If their allies seize control of Mexico’s southern neighbor via its institutions, as Daniel Ortega has done in Nicaragua, it will have implications for Mexican and American security.

The U.N. body, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG by its Spanish initials), has been in the country since 2007. It has busted some criminals. But its unchecked power has led to abuse, and this should concern U.S. backers. Some of CICIG’s most vociferous defenders hail from Guatemala’s extreme left, which eschews equality under the law and representative democracy.

CICIG’s rogue justice has come to the attention of Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission. He has scheduled a hearing April 27 to review CICIG’s role in the Guatemalan prosecution and extralegal conviction of a Russian family on the run from Vladimir Putin’s mafia.

As I detailed in March 26 and April 19 Americas columns, Igor and Irina Bitkov, and their daughter Anastasia, fled persecution in Russia and became victims of a crime syndicate in Guatemala that was selling false identity documents. Yet Guatemala and CICIG tried the family alongside members of the crime ring that tricked them. They were convicted and given unusually harsh sentences.

Guatemalan law and the U.N.’s Palermo Convention say that such migrants are victims, and a Guatemalan constitutional appeals court ruled that the Bitkovs committed no crime. CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors ignored that ruling, went to a lower court and got a conviction. CICIG will not say why, or why it didn’t prosecute the law firm that solicited the fake documents given to the Bitkovs.

Matías Ponce is “head of communications” for CICIG but there is no contact information for him or his office on the CICIG website. I managed to get his cellphone number from a third party and, after repeated tries, made contact with him. I requested his email and wrote to him so I could share with readers CICIG’s explanation of what appears to be abuse of power. He sent me a boilerplate response about CICIG’s work against criminal networks but no answers to my questions.

It is unlikely CICIG will answer questions before the Helsinki Commission. Its co-chairman, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), invited CICIG to appear at a similar hearing he proposed for April 24 in the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee monitoring human rights and U.N. entities. CICIG declined the invitation. That hearing was not scheduled, though the office of Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) told me it’s not dead. If CICIG refuses to cooperate with the Helsinki Commission, it will fuel the feeling among rule-of-law advocates that it has something to hide.

CICIG says it is in Guatemala merely to “support” the attorney general in her work “identifying and dismantling” criminal networks and is not involved in politics. But an academic analysis of CICIG by Jonatán Lemus, a Francisco Marroquín University political science professor, suggests otherwise. Mr. Lemus observes that “CICIG has also been criticized for the very same reasons others have praised it: becoming a player in judicial appointments, proposing some controversial reforms to the Guatemalan constitution, and the use of televised conferences to shift the public in its favor. From this perspective, instead of strengthening Guatemalan institutions, the Commission is making national institutions dependent on its assistance.”

This dependence drives CICIG deeper into politics. As Mr. Lemus notes, “once immersed in a polarized political system,” an international body designed like CICIG naturally “will face incentives to behave as any domestic bureaucracy trying to maximize its power and resources to ensure its survival.”

Without an explanation for the bizarre Bitkov convictions, Guatemalans are left to speculate about CICIG’s motives. Incompetence is one possibility. But once the injustice was publicized and not corrected, that reasoning collapsed. A foreign businessman also makes an easy target for a politically correct prosecutor seeking approval from anticapitalist nongovernmental organizations.

Kremlin “influence” cannot be ruled out. Nailing the Bitkovs was a priority for Russia because the family had refused to “donate” large sums to the Putin kitty in Kaliningrad. It would hardly be surprising to learn that Moscow leaned on prosecutors and judges to put the family behind bars.

There’s no doubt that something fishy went on, and CICIG prosecutor Iván Velásquez’s unwillingness to address it is troubling. The truth matters for the family, for Guatemala and for the U.S.

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: PARTIALLY PROTECTED? Non-Asylum Protection in the United States and the European Union Friday, June 14, 2019 2:00 p.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2237 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission The United States and the European Union give legal protection to some people who flee armed conflict or natural disaster, but do not qualify as refugees. In the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security designates countries of origin for “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS), enabling their nationals to legally remain in the United States and work until and unless the Secretary terminates the designation. Approximately 417,000 individuals from 10 countries currently have TPS, living in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. commonwealths and territories. In 2018, more than 100,300 people were granted similar non-asylum protection, on an individual basis, across the 28 countries of the European Union. Since 2017, the United States has extended TPS for Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and announced terminations for El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan. Lawsuits have challenged the terminations. To date, Members of Congress have introduced at least 10 TPS-focused bills in the 116th Congress. This briefing will explore the background and implementation of non-asylum protection in the United States and Europe—including whether some European Union Member States are according this protection even when asylum claims are credible—legislative and legal responses, and implications for policy, law, and protection. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Marleine Bastien, Executive Director, Family Action Network Movement Sui Chung, Attorney at Law, Immigration Law and Litigation Group, and Chair, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Committee, American Immigration Lawyers Association Jill H. Wilson, Analyst in Immigration Policy, Congressional Research Service Catherine Woollard, Secretary General, European Council on Refugees and Exiles Additional panelists may be added.

  • A New European Parliament – How Will EU-U.S. Relations Change?

    By Andrew Carroll, Kampelman Fellow On June 6, 2019, the European Parliament Liaison Office in Washington, D.C, in cooperation with the Delegation of the European Union (EU) to the United States, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, and the EU Congressional Caucus, convened a panel discussion on the May 2019 EU Parliamentary elections, and the future of the EU-U.S. relationship.      New EU Ambassador to the U.S. Stavros Lambrinidis opened the event, which was held on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, by reflecting on the heroism and sacrifice of those who helped construct the rules-based system of freedom and order underpinning continued peace and security in Europe. Their contributions, he noted, are directly tied to last month’s European Parliamentary elections, which he hailed as a triumph for democracy following record voter turnout among EU Member States.  Dr. Mischa Thompson, Helsinki Commission director of global partnerships, policy, and innovation, delivered remarks on behalf of Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hastings (FL-20). Chairman Hastings’ statement discussed the symbolism of the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, stating it was a “stark reminder of the power of allied U.S. and European strength in the face of threats to democracy.”  His comments also emphasized the close bond the U.S. shares with Europe, highlighting programs such as the Transatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network (TILN), which supports emerging leaders for the long-term prosperity of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Three European alumni of the TILN program were elected to the European Parliament in May. In the discussion that followed, moderated by Paul Adamson, Chairman of Forum Europe, panelists Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Kathleen McNamara of Georgetown University, and Antoine Ripoll of the European Parliament Liaison Office stressed the enduring importance of the U.S.-EU relationship amidst the changing political landscapes.  The panelists stressed security and economic ties, as well as the need to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. Congress and European Parliament on policy matters ranging from trade to counterterrorism and data privacy.  Speakers commented on the dramatic increase in voter turnout in the EU’s newest Member States in Central and Eastern Europe. They also noted the new composition of the European Parliament, which not only reflects losses by mainstream political parties, but also the entrance of new players; 60 percent of new MEPs have not previously held office in the body.  Discussants later fielded questions on subjects including EU defense integration, trade and investment, and U.S.-EU common policy towards China.      

  • Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Russia’s Approach to Counterterrorism

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIA’S COUNTERPRODUCTIVE COUNTERTERRORISM Wednesday, June 12, 2019 10:30 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2255 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Kremlin actively seeks to present Russia as a global leader in the practice of counterterrorism and countering extremism. However, Moscow’s policies and practices in this area may be problematic at best and counterproductive at worst. Witnesses will offer expert views on how the Kremlin’s counterterrorism approach has evolved over time; its effectiveness; the extent to which it complies with Russia’s commitments to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms; regional implications; and whether Kremlin actions dovetail—or not—with U.S. interests.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Dr. Michael Carpenter, Senior Director, Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia; former National Security Council Director for Russia Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch Dr. Mariya Y. Omelicheva, Professor of Strategy at the United States National War College, National Defense University; author, “Russia’s Regional and Global Counterterrorism Strategies” and “Russia’s Counterterrorism Policy: Variations on an Imperial Theme”

  • Why Moldova Matters

    Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing explored these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. Helsinki Commission policy advisor Rachel Bauman opened the briefing by posing questions to the room: “Will Moldova’s deeply divided parliament be able to form a governing coalition? What influence will Moldova’s oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc have on the process of forming a government? And is there real political will in Moldova, especially right now after elections, to become a full-fledged member of the EU? And finally, what’s going on in the breakaway Russian region of Transnistria?” Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, jumped in first to provide context for the conversation. Welt explained, “According to international and domestic observers, Moldova’s recent parliamentary elections were democratic but somewhat flawed. And these flaws included allegations of vote buying and the misuse of state resources. Nonetheless, the outcome of the elections appears to reflect longstanding domestic divisions within Moldova, between what you might characterize as a European-leaning majority and a Russian-leaning minority.” Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, reflected on his experience observing the 2018 elections in Moldova. Kirchick also spoke to the main question of the briefing, saying, Moldova “matters because the United States has been committed to a policy of a Europe whole, free and at peace, really since the end of the Cold War, and consolidating democracy and good government. And Moldova is a pretty sore spot. It’s the poorest country in Europe. It’s the site of very high corruption. It’s the site of Russian influence. It’s the site of a lack of territorial integrity. And we’ve seen now that there are three nations in this region – Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova – that all have Russian troops stationed on them. And this is something that should certainly concern the United States and its democratic allies.” H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States maintained that while Moldova has seen hard times, the country is working to improve. She highlighted its strong partnership with the U.S., fight against antisemitism, and growing economy as signs of development. Ambassador Balan concluded with a call to action, saying, “Of course, there is so much more work to be done, including addressing corruption issues, including increasing our national defense capability, including resolving the Transnistrian conflict, and many others. There is a lot of work to be done.” The questions from the audience were largely posed to Ambassador Balan and allowed for a deeper exploration into the economic and political realities of life in Moldova and the relationship, or lack thereof, with Russia.

  • Moldova Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON— The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: WHY MOLDOVA MATTERS Tuesday, June 4, 2019 10:00 a.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 121 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission Though typically viewed as a state torn between Russian influence and the West, Moldova faces not only external problems but also serious internal challenges. Following February elections marked by corruption and vote-buying, Moldova’s deeply divided parliament now must attempt to form a governing coalition. In addition, five years after Moldova signed an accession agreement with the European Union, questions remain about whether the country is willing—or even able—to undertake the comprehensive reforms required to join the EU. This briefing will explore these and other issues against the background of the continuing Transnistria dispute and Moldova’s precarious role in the region. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Jamie Kirchick, Journalist and Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution Dr. Cory Welt, Specialist in European Affairs, Congressional Research Service H.E. Cristina Balan, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the United States

  • Curbing Corruption through Corporate Transparency and Collaboration

    The United Kingdom has implemented some of the world’s most innovative anti-corruption policies. In particular, its public beneficial ownership registry is the only active one of its kind and its Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce models effective collaboration between law enforcement and the private sector. This briefing examined these policies and the United Kingdom’s broader strategy to counter illicit finance. Panelists discussed how the United Kingdom implements its policies, their successes and shortcomings, and what remains to be done. Though U.S. corporate transparency proposals take a non-public approach, panelists also discussed the lessons that the United States can draw from the British experience. John Penrose, M.P., U.K. Prime Minister’s Anti-Corruption Champion, explained the reputational risks associated with money laundering in the U.S. and U.K. financial markets to the rules-based system. Penrose explained the British approach of establishing a beneficial ownership registry, saying, “What we are trying to do in the U.K. is we are trying to set up something which will effectively create a global norm to say let’s all have some kind of a register about who owns and controls these companies.  We’re not asking for the moon.  As I said, we don’t need to know everybody who owns a piece of every company.  We just need to know who the controlling minds and the controlling interests are.” Edward Kitt, Serious and Organized Crime Network Illicit Finance Policy Lead at the British Embassy in Washington, covered the issues the U.K is facing with their beneficial ownership policy. Kitt explained, “One challenge we have is feedback to financial institutions on suspicious activity reports. Often, financial institutions will submit suspicious activity reports and they don’t hear any feedback as to actually what was the utility of that, how useful was that.” Even considering the difficulty the policy has experienced, Kitt maintained, “It’s not just a talking shop; it delivers. And… it’s assisted in identifying and restraining in excess of £9 million.  So, the results are palpable.” Mark Hays, Anti-Money Laundering Campaign Leader at Global Witness and the sole American panelist, reflected on his company’s investigations into corruption: “Simply put, if the U.S. wants to continue to show this leadership we need to match the U.K.’s efforts in establishing some modicum of disclosure for beneficial ownership transparency for companies.” Hays continued, “If we don’t, not only will we be failing to live up to this leadership test, but we will put ourselves at greater risk for becoming a haven for bad actors and their ill-gotten gains.” Nate Sibley, Research Fellow for the Kleptocracy Initiative at the Hudson Institute, spoke to how the UK’s policies could transfer to the U.S. Sibley described a House Financial Services Committee bill, “introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney called the Corporate Transparency Act,” that ensures companies disclose beneficial owners. He went on to explain that the bill “would create a private beneficial ownership register. So not a public one like they have in the U.K., but one that was accessible only to law enforcement, under very strict and controlled circumstances.” Sibley outlined the ways that the U.S. federal system changes the prospect of the registry logistics, but maintained that it would still work in the U.S.

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