TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Honduras’ new hotly contested penal code, which among other things will shorten sentences for some corruption-related crimes, took effect Thursday despite a last-minute attempt by opposition lawmakers to repeal it.
Civic groups and international watchdogs have criticized the reforms passed while a number of current and former lawmakers were under investigation for alleged corruption.
The government has since ousted the anti-corruption mission sponsored by the Organization of American States that was the driving force behind those investigations. In January, the Honduran government did not extend the mission’s mandate.
The implementation of the new penal code is seen by critics as another step in the country’s backslide from addressing deeply ingrained government corruption.
Criminal attorney and former federal lawmaker Rasel Tomé said all of the crimes the new penal code lowers the sentences for are the ones committed by corrupt officials.
Among crimes receiving reduced sentences under the reforms are crimes involving the misuse of public funds, abuse of authority, influence trafficking, fraud and illicit enrichment.
The new code also introduces the possibility of substituting prison sentences with less restrictive measures if the convicted repay the money and were sentenced to less than five years in prison, Tomé said.
Human Rights Watch also warned this year that the new penal code could “criminalize the lawful exercise of the rights to protest and assembly” with vaguely worded definitions of crimes like public disturbances.
Dagoberto Rodríguez, president of the Journalists Guild, said his organization was concerned about the law going into effect because elements appear to infringe on freedom of expression and a free press, as well as criminalize the work of news outlets.
The reforms were approved by the congress in January 2018 after years of debate. Late Wednesday, opposition lawmakers tried to convene a special session of congress and voted to repeal the new law. However, constitutional lawyer Juan Carlos Barrientos said the move was invalid.
Presidential secretary Ebal Díaz said he would receive and review a petition from opposition lawmakers anyway. The Congress' legal representatives presented a complaint to the Attorney General's Office Thursday alleging usurpation of powers, abuse of authority and other crimes.
President Juan Orlando Hernández, currently hospitalized with pneumonia after testing positive for COVID-19, has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of taking money from drug traffickers to advance his political career. He has denied those allegations and has not been charged.