Guatemala: Leopoldo Zeissig, Special Prosecuotor | Trial monitoring

Leopoldo Zeissig was the prosecutor and investigator of the April 28 1998 murder of Monsignor Juan José Gerardi. Two days before his death, Gerardi as Director of the Human rights office of the Archdioces of Guatemala–ODHA had issued a 4-volume report on human rights abuses that occurred during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war and concluded that the military was implicated in 90% of the abuses, which include 200,000 murders.

Leopoldo Zeissig was assigned as special prosecutor to Gerard case in 2000 after his predecessor, Celvin Galindo into exile by threats to his life. Zeissig then became the target of threats and surveillance by unknown people. He filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP) about the threats. In June 2001 three people were convicted of the ‘extra-judicial execution’ of Bishop Gerardi and sentenced to 30 years each: Colonel Bryon Lima Estada, Captin Bryon Lima Oliva and Jose Obdulio Villanueva. Priest Mario Orantes was convicted of being an accomplice and sentenced to 20 years. The crime of ‘extra-judicial execution imples that the accused acted as agents of the state in the murder. The crime of murder carries a 20-year sentence. Appeals of all convictions have been filed.

The June 2001 convictions were the first time in Guatemala history that military officers had been convicted of committing crimes while acting as state agents. Immediately following the convictions, prosecutors asked the Public Ministry to continue investigations up the chain of command of Estado Mayor Presidencial–EMP to determine who had authorized the killing. Judges approved further investigations of the involvement of EMP head Colonel Rudy Vinicio Pozuilos, second in command Francisco Escobar Blass, and head of EMP services Eduardo Villagrán Alfaro. On July 22 2001, Zeissig fled Guatemala with his wife and son citing repeated death threats, a lack of security for his family, and the refusal of his superiors to transfer him after the conclusion of the Gerardi murder trial. “Zeissig did a very good job, and was very objective, but in Guatemalan justice, there is no room for such people,” said Neri Rodenas, director of ODHA.

On July 31 2001 the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights responded by expressing concern for the safety of judicial staff and witnesses who have participated in the criminal proceedings stemming from the extrajudicial execution of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, and reaffirmed that Guatemala must take the necessary measures to identify and prosecute those responsible for threats against Zeissig and others. The IACHR also urged the government of Guatemala to abide by its international obligations to guarantee the personal safety of human rights defenders, judges, investigators, witnesses and others committed to fighting impunity.


June 3rd to 9th 2001: James Tate, lawyer and member of LRWC, attended the final week of the Gerardi trial 2001 to monitor security measures. LRWC attended the trial to support Mynor Melgar, Coordinator of the Legal Office of the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Office for Human Rights, Leopoldo Zeissig and others involved in the Gerardi prosecution.

June 2001: LRWC issued a press release calling on the government of Guatemala to abide by biding legal obligations arising under international law to protect the lives and independence of advocates and specifically of: Iris Yasmin Barrio, Amanda Guzmán, José Eduardo Cojulun Sánchez, Leopoldo Zeissig, Mario Hilario Leal Barrientos, Nery Rodenas, Mario Domingo and Mynor Melgar.

July 2001: The report of James Tate was released. Gerardi Murder: Report on Visit to Guatemala, July 2001.

August 9 2001: LRWC issued a press release calling on the government of Guatemala to guarantee the safety and independence of Leopoldo Zeissig and other people involved in defending human rights and prosecuting human rights abuses.

October 2002: Brenda Wemp, lawyer and LRWC member attended the appeal of those convicted of the Gerardi murder. The Appeal Court granted to appeals and ordered a new trial on October 8th 2002.