UPDATE JUNE 14:
On June 13, 2023, José Rubén Zamora was sentenced to six years for “money laundering.” He was found not guilty of influence peddling and blackmail. Samari Gómez was found not guilty of the crime of disclosing confidential information.
The ABA CHR will be releasing a Trial Observation Report soon.
Brief Summary of the Case:
As part of the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch initiative, the ABA CHR has been monitoring in person the trials of José Rubén Zamora & Samari Gómez. José Rubén Zamora, an award-winning Guatemalan journalist and the Founding Director of the now-shuttered Guatemalan outlet ElPeriódico, is being prosecuted for money laundering, influence peddling and blackmail. He is being tried alongside former prosecutor Samari Gómez, from the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), who has been charged with disclosing confidential information. The prosecution has requested that Zamora be sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment.
The case against Zamora was triggered by a complaint filed by Ronald Giovanni García Navarijo on July 26, 2022. Navarijo is a former banker who had reportedly been a source of information for ElPeriódico and is currently under investigation for money laundering, embezzlement, and other alleged crimes in Guatemala. Navarijo asserted that Zamora had asked him to launder 300,000 QZ ($40,000). According to the indictment, the money laundering charge is based on the inference that it was “possible” the 300,000 QZ were the proceeds of blackmail. The influence peddling charge is based on an allegation that José Rubén Zamora “influenced through Mr. Juan Francisco Sandoval Alfaro [the former head of FECI]” Assistant Prosecutor Samari Carolina Gómez Díaz so that she would “make decisions that would allow the latter [Navarijo] to obtain an undue benefit.” The blackmail charge is based on an allegation that Zamora asked Navarijo for ‘favors’ “in exchange for not making public facts [in] ElPeriódico” that would have been harmful to Navarijo.
The ABA CHR has documented numerous obstacles faced by Zamora’s lawyers (and to a lesser extent, Gómez’s lawyers). Zamora has been represented by 9 different lawyers throughout proceedings, and many did not seem to have access to the casefile. The timeline below summarizes our documentation:
July 29, 2022 - Arrest: Zamora is arrested after a police raid at his home.
August 1, 2022 - First statement hearing postponed: According to news reports, the first statement hearing is postponed because the judge had not received the case file and because the vehicle meant to transport Zamora from the Mariscal Zabala prison to the hearing “broke down.” One of Zamora’s lawyers, Mario Castañeda, tells journalists that he has not been able to access the case file.
August 3, 2022 - First statement hearing: The prosecution mentions at the start of the hearing that they have initiated an investigation into Zamora’s lawyers Romeo Montoya García and Mario Castañeda that morning at 8am. The judge gives Zamora five minutes to discuss with his lawyers if they will continue to represent him. After five minutes, the judge asks Zamora if he will continue with his lawyers “despite the serious accusations that exist against them” or if he wants to find a new lawyer. When he says he will find a new lawyer, the judge gives him four days to do so. The prosecution asks if one day would be enough to not postpone Samari Gómez’s case. However, Zamora objects to this, and the first statement hearing is rescheduled to August 8.
August 8-9 - First statement hearing: Zamora is represented by a new lawyer, Christian Ulate. Near the end of the day on August 8, Ulate tells the court that some of the prosecution’s evidence displayed in the hearing had not been shared with the defense. The judge orders the prosecution to share the evidence with defense counsel.
October 2022 - Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa takes over Zamora’s defense. According to news reports, Christian Ulate leaves the country after facing ongoing harassment and intimidation.
December 8, 2022- Intermediate stage hearing: At this hearing, the prosecution requests and the judge grants authorization to open an investigation into Zamora’s defense counsel Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa and Justino Brito Torres for alleged obstruction of justice and altering evidence in relation to the defense submissions regarding an alleged art sale. (During the investigation period, Zamora’s defense counsel presented a contract for the sale of a painting as potential evidence of the origin of the seized money that is the basis for the money laundering charge). The prosecution also requests that investigations be opened against two individuals the defense offered as witnesses.
December 12, 2022 - Samari Gómez tells the media that she has lost her defense counsel, Armando Mendoza, because the Court of Honor of the Guatemalan Bar Association and Notaries (CANG) is investigating him for “lack of ethics.”
December 22, 2022 - “Offering of evidence” hearing.
January 19, 2023 - Arrest warrants are reportedly issued for defense lawyers Romeo Montoya García and Mario Castañeda based on the investigation initiated by the prosecution on August 3. Castañeda is arrested and detained that same day.
February 17, 2023 - Castañeda is transferred to what news media has called a “highly dangerous” maximum security prison in Matamoros.
February 21 - Casteñeda accepts the charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice. He is sentenced to 3 years in prison, which is commuted with a payment.
March 3 - Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa and Justino Brito Torres resign from José Rubén Zamora’s defense, citing the criminal proceedings against them.
April 20 - Foppa and Torres are arrested.
April 25 - Romeo Montoya García turns himself in and accepts the charge of conspiracy to obstruct justice. He is sentenced to six years in prison, which is reduced to three years. His remaining sentence is commuted with payment.
May 2 - Trial: Zamora’s trial begins with Patricia Guillermo de Chea and Ricardo Sergio Szejner as his defense lawyers. There are trial hearings on May 2-4, 8-11, 18-19, 22-23, and 30-31.
May 2-4 - Trial: When presented with an expert report on May 3, Guillermo de Chea indicates that she “does not know that document” and that she “does not know much of the file,” explaining that she did not request a postponement out of respect for the court’s agenda. The following day, when the presiding judge observed that defense counsel still did not have certain files, she orders Gómez’s defense lawyers to deliver all the evidence in their possession to Zamora’s defense counsel, and further orders Zamora’s lawyers to request any remaining files from the prosecution.
May 8 - Trial: At the beginning of the afternoon session, Szejner requests authorization to leave early to attend a medical appointment.
May 9 - Trial: At the beginning of the hearing, Guillermo de Chea informs the court that Szejner has withdrawn from the defense team, citing health issues and his doctor’s recommendation.
May 11 - Trial: At the end of this hearing, Zamora requests that the court assign him a lawyer from the Institute of Public Criminal Defense (IDPP). The trial is postponed until May 18.
May 12 - The IDPP appoints public defender Fidenza Orozco García to Zamora’s case.
May 15 - ElPeriódico shuts down. Its directors cite “persecution” and the “harassment of [their] advertisers,” which made maintaining operations “more and more difficult.”
May 16 - The Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), which is involved in the case as an ‘adhesive plaintiff,’ tweets that it will file a complaint against the Director of the IDPP and Fidencia Orozco García for “the obvious influence peddling in this designation [i.e. the designation of Orozco García as Zamora’s public defender].”
May 17 - The day before Zamora’s trial is set to resume, the IDPP apparently assigns Sandra Eugenia Morales García to be Zamora’s lawyer, replacing Fidencia Orozco. However, Zamora is apparently not notified.
May 18 - Trial: Joel Ivan Reyes appears in court as Zamora’s lawyer. The judge expects Sandra García to represent Zamora, but she does not come to court. When Zamora asked the Court if Orozco could return as counsel, the Court replies that assignment of a public defender is the decision of the IDPP, and that the Court does not have any power of decision because the IDPP is an independent institution. Zamora asks Reyes to request a postponement; he does not. During the hearing, Reyes indicates at least once that he is not familiar with a document that the prosecution had entered into evidence and that is discussed in the hearing.
May 19 - FCT files a complaint against Guillermo Sian and Carolina del Cid, Gómez’s defense attorneys, for the crime of “unfaithful sponsorship,” alleging that they were collaborating with Zamora in conflict with the interests of their client.
May 20 - Foppa is reportedly moved to solitary confinement in Mariscal Zavala prison.
May 23 - Trial: Reyes says he does not have access to the evidence the previous lawyers may have been planning to enter at trial because he had not had contact with his predecessors.
June 9 - Foppa and Brito accept the charges against them. Foppa had previously announced that he would accept the charges because “he did not have access to the evidence to defend himself” and did not expect a fair trial.
https://www.plazapublica.com.gt/content/quien-es-garcia-navarijo-y-por-que-es-protagonista-en-el-proceso-contra-jose-ruben-zamora-y; see also https://www.perspectiva.gt/noticias/capturan-a-ronald-giovanni-garcia-navarijo-exdirectivo-del-bantrab/; https://www.prensalibre.com/pl-plus/guatemala/politica/ronald-garcia-navarijo-el-ascenso-y-caida-de-un-banquero-con-influencia-politica/ik
 This is a hearing to inform the accused of the reasons for their arrest, to link the accused to the process (after which the judge issues an order indicating that the accused is accused of a crime and subject to criminal proceedings), and to decide on preventative detention or substitute measures.
 Monitor’s Notes, August 3, 2022; Livestream of hearing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVPJOleJZtA&t=12s
 Livestream of First Statement Hearing, https://www.facebook.com/TN23NOTICIAS/videos/audiencia-de-primera-declaraci%C3%B3n-de-jos%C3%A9-rub%C3%A9n-zamora/541690487734569/?locale=ms_MY
 This is a hearing to decide whether the accused should be put on trial.
 Monitor’s Notes, December 8, 2022; see also https://prensacomunitaria.org/2022/12/periodista-jose-ruben-zamora-es-enviado-a-juicio-juez-ordena-investigar-a-su-abogado/
 Monitor’s Notes, December 8, 2022.
 Monitor’s Notes, December 8, 2022. Girón Lainfiesta (the businessman who allegedly bought the painting) and Orlando Alejandro Álvarez Zamora (a legal representative of Lainfiesta’s company). Both were intended to be defense witnesses. Both are later arrested and sentenced on April 28 to one year and six months, and one year, respectively. Their sentences are commuted with payment. https://www.mp.gob.gt/noticia/caso-chantaje-impunidad-y-lavado-de-dinero-dictan-segunda-y-tercera-sentencia/.
 This is a hearing in which the prosecution and defense offer evidence they wish to be considered at trial, and the judge decides what evidence is admitted and what is excluded.
 https://elperiodico.com.gt/politica/justicia/2023/01/19/acoso-legal-continua-nuevo-proceso-contra-jose-ruben-zamora-y-abogados/; https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/justicia/el-mp-vincula-a-jose-ruben-zamora-en-nuevo-caso-por-conspiracion-para-la-obstruccion-de-justicia-y-detiene-a-uno-de-sus-abogados-breaking/
 https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/justicia/caso-jose-ruben-zamora-abogado-del-presidente-de-elperiodico-acepta-que-conspiro-para-obstruir-la-justicia-y-recibe-condena-breaking/; NB: The Special Procedure for Acceptance of Charges allows a person convicted of certain offenses to "commute" their sentence by paying a fine.
 https://republica.gt/seguridad-y-justicia/condenan-a-romeo-montoya-garcia-exabogado-de-jose-ruben-zamora-202342512560; https://republica.gt/seguridad-y-justicia/condenan-a-romeo-montoya-garcia-exabogado-de-jose-ruben-zamora-202342512560
 Monitor’s Notes, May 2.
 Monitor’s Notes, May 3.
 Monitor’s Notes, May 4.
 Monitor’s Notes, May 8.
 Monitor’s Notes, May 9.
 Monitor’s Notes, May 11.
 https://twitter.com/el_Periodico/status/1657004176486924289?s=20; www.aljazeera.com%2Fnews%2F2023%2F5%2F12%2Fguatemalas-elperiodico-shutting-due-to-government-persecution; https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/12/guatemalas-elperiodico-shutting-due-to-government-persecution
 In crimes of “public action,” aggrieved parties may join the prosecution as “adhesive plaintiffs.” The US Department of State has described FCT as “an NGO known to target anticorruption and human rights defenders” by filing “both civil and criminal complaints against human rights NGOs and NGOs that sought to create government accountability for human rights abuses during the internal armed conflict.” https://www.state.gov/reports/2022-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/guatemala
 Monitor’s Notes, May 22 (judge references the IDPP decision in court).
 Monitor’s Notes, May 18; https://twitter.com/jodyreporta/status/1659210811452329984?s=48&t=Z-fsd5WDjFpQOS6LX_caOA
 https://twitter.com/rmendezruiz/status/1659607430253232130?s=12&t=Z-fsd5WDjFpQOS6LX_caOA; https://twitter.com/raulfalla31/status/1658508169235005449?s=48&t=Z-fsd5WDjFpQOS6LX_caOA
 Conversation with Trial Monitor, June 8; Foppa es el tercer abogado de Jose Rubén Zamora que aceptará cargos – Prensa Comunitaria
 Monitor’s Notes, May 22.