Prominent Guatemalan Journalist Released After 2 Years Behind Bars

Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images
Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

An award-winning journalist imprisoned in Guatemala for nearly two years was granted a conditional release on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

José Rubén Zamora, 67, was first arrested on charges of possible money laundering, blackmail, and influence peddling in July 2022. After a year in detention while he waited for his case to play out, he was convicted on the money laundering charge by a three-judge panel, which sentenced him to six years in prison and fined him $40,000. (He was cleared of blackmail and influence peddling.)

A prominent critic of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Zamora is best-known as the founder and publisher of the elPeriódico newspaper, which regularly investigated graft and corruption within Giammattei’s government. ElPeriódico shuttered the year after Zamora’s arrest.

Press freedom and civil rights groups criticized Zamora’s arrest and sentencing as retaliatory and politically motivated, a charge Giammattei has denied. “I am innocent of the crimes,” Zamora said after his sentencing, the AP reported at the time. “I continue being innocent and [Giammattei] continues being a thief.”

In October, Zamora’s conviction was overturned by another court and a new trial ordered. Waiting for his retrial, he has remained behind bars, largely in isolation. He previously told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he’d been subjected to sleep deprivation in a cell infested with bugs.

But in a Wednesday hearing in Guatemala City, a judge ordered that Zamora be released to house arrest as proceedings continue. He was ordered to post a bond of nearly $4,800, according to the AP.

“During my entire life I have been the victim of attacks, abductions, aggressions for the work that I do,” Zamora said at the hearing.

Jorge Duque, Guatemala’s former human rights ombudsman, agreed to guarantee Zamora’s appearance at future hearings, according to the AP.

“It is the least I can do,” Duque said. “I know him and I know that he will continue facing the process against him.”

The move was hailed by advocates for Zamora’s freedom, including Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, which said in a statement that it represented “a positive first step in the series of legal proceedings unjustly linked to the journalist,” whom they called “a beacon of courage and journalistic ethics for over 30 years.”

Zamora was not immediately released, however, as decisions remain pending in two other cases against him, according to the CPJ.

Zamora’s work has been internationally recognized. He has received an International Press Freedom Award from the CPJ and the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University. The day before the hearing, he was awarded a journalistic excellence prize by the Gabo Foundation.

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