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Gender, Power, and Corruption: Virginia Laparra’s Fight

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Luca Brocca

Just Access Representative to the UN Convention Against Corruption

Concern for Lilian Virginia Laparra Rivas’ persists as her trial was delayed despite international recognition that her detention violates human rights law. The treatment of the 44-year-old lawyer from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, is a clear attack on a human rights defender and anti-corruption champion. 

Ms. Laparra led the Guatemala’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) branch in Quetzaltenango from 2014 to 2020. She handled the prosecution of cases involving corruption and large-scale criminal activities, particularly those connected to illegal security forces, clandestine networks, and corruption within public institutions. 

In 2017, she suspected Lesther Castellanos, a judge at the time, of unlawful acts, including leaking sensitive information from a sealed corruption case to lawyer Omar Barrios but, was accused of abusing her power after she reported the incident. The judge faced disciplinary action; however, he later joined forces with the Foundation Against Terrorism, an extreme-right group known for targeting prosecutors and judges they see as opponents. Therefore, when the judge claimed she reported him for “personal reasons,” Ms. Laparra was subsequently charged with abuse of authority. 

One month after Ms. Laparra’s arrest, Castellanos was elected as a rapporteur against torture. He denied any personal revenge and defended Ms. Laparra’s 23-hour-a-day confinement, claiming it met international standards. 

The WGAD expressed deep concern over Ms. Laparra’s detention for over 2 years and recommended her unconditional release

During her detention, Ms. Laparra could only see her 11 and 14-year-old daughters once or twice a month, she underwent surgery without the possibility to choose her own doctor, and the state failed to provide necessary medication. 

Given the circumstances, the UN Working Group Against Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) stated in a 2023 opinion that the detention of Ms. Laparra was arbitrary and thus violated Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The WGAD expressed deep concern over Ms. Laparra’s detention for over 2 years and recommended her unconditional 

Following the WGAD report, a judge in Guatemala City authorized Ms. Laparra’s immediate release. However, in January 2024, she was placed under house arrest and required to report to authorities every 15 days, a condition that, according to a 1993 WGAD report, amounts to deprivation of liberty if the person cannot leave a closed premises. 

On the 6th of May 2024, Ms. Laparra appeared in court in Quetzaltenango for the start of her new trial. However, the lawyer representing one of the adhesive plaintiffs failed to appear, prompting the judge to reschedule the hearing for the 27th of May 2024.

As head of the FECI branch in Quetzaltenango, Ms. Laparra attempted to use the legal system to dismantle entrenched criminal networks only to continously face disproportionate punishment due to her gender. The misuse of the criminal justice system to target Ms. Laparra is a result of her efforts to combat organized crime as a woman, revealing the misogynistic tactics employed by the Guatemalan state to undermine the rule of law. 

It’s not a coincidence that she was initially detained alongside four other female prosecutors and anti-corruption lawyers. Her detention and subsequent conviction in an unfair trial reflect a broader trend of using the justice system against women, human rights defenders, journalists, and justice officials. 

As Claudia Gonzalez, a member of Ms. Laparra’s defense team, has pointed out, this is a political conflict, not a legal one. It’s clear that Ms. Laparra’s case is a form of political retaliation against those working to combat corruption in Guatemala, serving as a warning to those who investigate the powerful. 


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Gender, Power, and Corruption: Virginia Laparra’s Fight