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Trial Observation Report: Guatemala vs. Abelino Chub


In late April 2019, the American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Human Rights[1] monitored criminal proceedings in Guatemala against indigenous land rights advocate Abelino Chub as part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative.[2] Mr. Chub was charged with burning down trees and fields on a plantation operated by Cobra Investments, a banana and palm company located in the Izabal region of Guatemala. Cobra is a partner company of CXI S.A., which joined the proceedings as a private complainant.[3] While Mr. Chub was ultimately acquitted and the trial itself was largely compliant with fair trial standards, Mr. Chub’s unjustified pretrial detention constituted a gross violation of human rights and there are indicia that his prosecution was motivated by improper considerations.[4]

Mr. Chub languished in prison for over two years prior to trial despite a complete lack of justification for this delay, in contravention of the guarantees established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. Meanwhile, Mr. Chub was denied his right to judicial review of detention, again violating standards established by relevant instruments. As such, his detention can be categorized as prolonged arbitrary detention, a gross human rights violation.

Troublingly, it appears that Mr. Chub’s prosecution was based on improper motives; specifically, the goal of obstructing Mr. Chub’s advocacy regarding land rights. Immediately before his arrest, Mr. Chub was working on behalf of indigenous communities in Izabal to facilitate dialogue with state and private actors and assist in the reacquisition of land, some of which was claimed by CXI S.A (as mentioned above, the private complainant in the case).

Standards set by the European Court of Human Rights – which the Inter-American system regularly relies on in interpreting the American Convention – establish that the timing of arrest, the political climate, a lack of justification for state action, and the selective targeting of an individual are all indicia of abuse of process. In the present case, Mr. Chub’s arrest transpired in concurrence with his representation of indigenous communities fighting for their right to lands in CXI S.A.’s possession; there was a startling dearth of evidence supporting either Mr. Chub’s detention or prosecution; and Mr. Chub was singled out for prosecution amongst a group of 40 individuals who allegedly participated in the burning of Cobra’s trees and fields. As such, the case raises concerns that Mr. Chub was charged not because of reasonable suspicion that he had committed a crime but to prevent his advocacy on behalf of his community.

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[1] With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. The ABA Center for Human Rights has monitored trials and provided pro bono assistance to at-risk human rights defenders in over 60 countries.

[2] The Center would like to thank the Clooney Foundation for Justice for providing funding for the monitoring of Mr. Chub’s case and the production of the report. The Center is also grateful to all those who provided valuable information about the trial and helped with the observation mission.

[3] Pursuant to Guatemala’s Criminal Procedure Code, private parties may join in the prosecution of a criminal case as querellante adhesivos, or joint complainants. At trial, the monitor noted that defense counsel referred to CXI S.A. and its partner company Cobra interchangeably. Public reports have listed Cobra as a second complainant. However, the indictment only refers to CXI S.A. and at trial the prosecutor only mentioned CXI S.A.

[4] Apart from the indictment, the Center did not have access to the case file. As such, all findings that follow are based on the indictment, the monitor’s notes, public reports, and communications with defense counsel.