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Daring Guatemalan Publisher Convicted on Trumped-Up Charge

A courageous Guatemalan publisher risks spending a year in jail for printing a photograph of a dog - such a trivial, dubious charge that it seems meant to interfere with his work of printing pathbreaking books.

It's not as if judges have nothing better to do in Guatemala, which has one of the world's highest homicide rates and a drug trade so rampant that cocaine gets confiscated by the ton. Impunity reigns for assassins and narcos.

But Raul Figueroa Sarti, who has become well-known and respected throughout the Americas for publishing Memorias del Silencio, the devastating report of the Guatemalan truth commission, and other books critical of past and present governments, was prosecuted because he failed to get written permission before printing a photo. The UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression (who is now the Guatemalan human rights advocate Frank LaRue, fortuitously) concluded that Figueroa Sarti's right to freedom of expression was violated.

"It is surprising that such a groundless case occasions so much activity and human resources from the public prosecutor and the Seventh Court of Criminal Jurisdiction when at the same time, so many violent cases end in impunity," LaRue wrote, in refreshingly crisp language for a U.N. official. "The only conclusion we can draw is that the photograph is an excuse, and this criminal proceeding is in fact a mechanism of intimidation against a publishing house that has maintained a critical publishing trajectory and has published materials about human rights violations."

The case was suspect in several ways. F&G Editores, Figueroa Sarti's imprint, published a novel by Mardo Escobar, whose day job is at the same Seventh Court that tried the case. Escobar later asked that F&G print a series of his photographs, according to Figueroa Sarti, who said he offered to print one of them, on the cover of another writer's forthcoming book. Escobar denied giving verbal permission, and told the court that he was shocked when he stumbled on the book, bearing his photo of a howling dog, in a store. F&G contradicted this with evidence -- a receipt showing that Escobar had accepted its offer of free copies of the book -- but the judges apparently ignored it, and handed down a sentence quite out of proportion to the offense (even if Figueroa Sarti had committed it).

Pending his appeal, Figueroa Sarti was put under house arrest and then, after petitions from many writers and human rights groups, he was permitted to leave the country this week. Whether confined to his home or taking temporary refuge abroad, however, he will be restricted in carrying out his work as a publisher. I hope this miscarriage of justice, and human rights violation, will be corrected speedily so that Figueroa Sarti can get back to work, fully and safely, soon.

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