Saturday, May 16, 2009

Guatemala Twitter arrest brings local scandal to wider audience

A Guatemalan man has been placed under house arrest for sending a Twitter message that incited “financial panic” last week. Police arrested 37 year old Jean Anleu Fernandez last Tuesday but released him on bail overnight on condition he remains at home. Fernandez’s employer put up a loan for the $6500 fine ordered by a Guatemalan judge and his supporters are collecting PayPal donations to repay it. A new video released shows him still tweeting while in handcuffs.

Fernandez tweets under the label @jeanfer and last week he urged people in Guatemala to boycott a bank in the aftermath of a political scandal. He was arrested at home in the capital Guatemala City and had his computer seized after tweeting (in Spanish) that people should withdraw cash from Banrural and “break the bank of the corrupt”. Fernandez tagged the message with '#escandalogt' which refers to the alleged murder of prominent lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg.

Rosenberg was shot dead last Sunday while riding his bicycle in Guatemala City. On Monday, he appeared in a youtube video in which he accused President Alvaro Colom, his wife and his personal secretary of ordering his own death. "If at this moment you are hearing or watching this message, it is because Alvaro Colom assassinated me,” said Rosenberg in the video. Rosenberg also accused Colom of Khalil Musa, a Guatemalan industrialist who was shot dead with his adult daughter a month ago. Musa was Rosenberg’s client.

Musa had been appointed by President Colom to the board of Banrural (the subject of Fernandez’s tweet) a partly state-run bank. In the video Rosenberg said Musa was killed because he refused to co-operate in corrupt Banrural (Rural Bank) business deals. President Colom has claimed he is “incapable” of ordering the murder and has asked overseas agencies to aid the investigation. Colom has invited the UN and the FBI to investigate the affair.

The US has confirmed the FBI have been asked to assist and authorities have also spoken to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN panel set up in 2007 to clean up corruption in the country. "I don't know the motives Rodigro Rosenberg had to film that tape but if you see those who were involved in filming the tape you understand who they are...they are destabilisers,” said Colom.

Hundreds of people have taken to streets of the capital this week protesting Rosenberg's death and demanding Colom's resignation. So far the president is unmoved. He told Al Jazeera he had no intention of stepping down over the matter. “The people of Guatemala have the right to protest and ask for justice ... but be careful of crossing the line," he said. He also won support from the Washington-based Organisation of American States (OAS) which passed a resolution on Wednesday approving support for Colom’s administration "in its obligation to preserve the institutions of democracy and the rule of law".

Álvaro Colom is a centre-leftist who won the election in 2007, taking office in January 2008. His main priority has been to address the tragic legacy left by the country’s 36 year civil war internal conflict, which killed close to a quarter of a million Guatemalans and ended only with the 1996 UN-brokered peace accords. In March he opened military archives to aid lawyers in a case against a former Guatemalan dictator for genocide and the government is collecting statements from war victims for future criminal cases against army and police officials accused of abuses during the war.

But the Rosenberg allegations represent Colom’s biggest test in office. The lawyer claimed Colom and his associates dragged his client Khalil Musa into a corruption scam involving Banrural, a rural development bank. The head of the banking system, Genaro Pacheco, said Fernandez admitted sending the tweet about Banrural. Inciting financial panic is an offence in Guatemala. He will be held under house arrest pending trial.

Fernandez's arrest has angered many bloggers and has spawned several campaigns of solidarity, including the collection of donations to pay for the fine. Many people are unconvinced his tweet could have produced the panic claimed by the government. Blogger Jorge Mota asks why the authorities could move so quickly on a case like this, but the more serious accusation from the Rosenberg video has yet to receive the same treatment. "One gets incriminated for murder by a video and one can deny everything, and of course the country's impunity protects," said Moto. "But one makes a comment on Twitter, and is arrested."

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