Israeli Defense Ministry Delays Giving State Prosecutor Info on Guatemala Arms Sales

The state prosecutor is conducting a probe of the possible role of Israeli officials in aiding crimes against humanity and genocide in Guatemala's civil war decades ago

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Guatemalan soldiers carrying out a humanitarian mission in November, 2020.
Guatemalan soldiers carrying out a humanitarian mission in November, 2020.Credit: Moises Castillo / AP

The Defense Ministry has for months been delaying the transfer to the State Prosecutor's Office of information regarding the arms trade between Israel and Guatemala.

The Prosecutor's Office requested the information in December 2019 as part of an investigation into the matter, which centers around the involvement of Israelis in arms exports to the Central American country 25 years ago and their use against civilians. 

The investigation was opened in September 2019 after Itay Mack, a lawyer and human rights expert, contacted the office of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on the matter. Mack asked the attorney general to order a criminal investigation into whether Israeli government officials, including former senior figures at the Defense Ministry, aided and abetted crimes against humanity and genocide. 

According to the request, during the Guatemalan Civil War from 1960 to 1996, about 200,000 people were murdered or “disappeared,” and crimes against humanity were committed by state security forces and militias affiliated with the Guatemalan military regime. Mack stated in his letter that these forces were armed and trained by Israel. 

Mack said that according to unclassified Foreign Ministry documents, Israeli officials who approved the defense exports were well aware of what was taking place in Guatemala and that from the mid-1970s Israel was a major arms supplier to the country.

He further stated that crimes against humanity were committed using Israeli military acumen and weapons, including, the use of Israeli-made Galil rifles by the Guatemalan military.

The request to initiate an investigation was assigned two months later to Deputy Attorney General Nurit Litman, who contacted the legal adviser to the Defense Ministry, who is responsible for the implementation of Israel's Defense Export Control Law, and asked to receive information and documents relating to approvals for the sale of weapons to Guatemala.

The following day she spoke by phone with the office of the legal adviser to the Defense Ministry to explain what information she was requesting.

Since then, the Defense Ministry has not sent the information to the State Prosecutor's Office, despite Litman's requests. On December 24, 2020, Litman received an email from the ministry saying that it had finished gathering and photocopying the materials, that there was a large quantity of documents and that they hoped to send them to Litman's office within two weeks.

David Rosen, the ombudsman for the State Prosecutor’s Office, in 2017Credit: Emil Salman

Almost two months have elapsed and the documents have not yet been received. 

David Rosen, the ombudsman for the State Prosecutor’s Office, recently sought to clarify the government’s handling of Mack’s request. Staff in the Prosecutor's Office said that the delay was caused by the Defense Ministry.

Rosen determined that the complaint was justified. “A citizen who makes a request to a public authority, even if he received a preliminary reply to his request, doesn't need to wait for months on end before receiving an update regarding the status of the handling of the request, certainly when the public authority is aware of the prolonged delay in handling it and the importance of the issues arising from it,” he wrote. 

Rosen also expressed regret that his office did not have authority over the Defense Ministry officials who delayed transmitting the information. 

“The description does not reflect the actual situation," the Defense Ministry said. "The Defense Ministry has fully cooperated with the Justice Ministry. The ministry is finishing locating the materials relating to Guatemala, and in the coming days will send them to the Justice Ministry. It should be stressed that this request has required gathering material from more than 25 years ago that extend over a 20-year period. The work on these and other issues is and will continue to be carried out in full cooperation between the ministries.”

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