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Inside the Historic Genocide Trial of a Guatemalan Dictator

The conviction of Rios Montt was the first time a former head of state was found guilty of genocide in a national court--until the verdict was overturned.
 
 
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Rios Montt was convicted of perpetrating a genocide in Guatemala, though the verdict was overturned in May 2013.
Photo Credit: Kenneth F. Wales

 
 
 
 

On May 10, 2013, history was made in Guatemala. For the first time ever, a former head of state was found guilty of genocide in a national court. And the prosecution of former de facto head of state José Efraín Ríos Montt and his chief of intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez was itself an historic first.

The milestones achieved by the prosecution significantly elevated Guatemala and its system of justice in the eyes of the international human rights community. This trial did not come easily to the Guatemalan courts, and did not proceed smoothly once it got there. Nevertheless, the successful prosecution was hailed by international observers and human rights groups as a major victory for justice -- until the guilty verdict was overturned by the Constitutional Court in a 3-2 decision only 10 days after it was delivered.

The case against Ríos Montt began almost 15 years ago, when victims groups in Guatemala filed the first complaints in Guatemala alleging that Ríos Montt committed human rights abuses. Until the appointment of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, however, there was no political will in the country to prosecute high-level leaders for human rights abuses. It was in this context that in 1999, Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate, initiated a human rights prosecution in Spain against the former general Ríos Montt – along with four other former generals – for torture, genocide and state-sponsored terrorism.

Ríos Montt became de facto president in a military coup d’etat on March 23, 1982, and the genocide and war crimes for which he was convicted took place over the nearly 17 months he was in power. Menchú, a Quiché indigenous woman, lost most of her family and community to the military’s attacks on indigenous communities, and has long been an advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights. From the beginning, the defendants maintained that the deaths of indigenous people occurred as a result of civil war and were a necessary consequence of the insurgents’ guerilla tactics.

The Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) joined the prosecution in Spain in 2006 as a popular prosecutor and coordinated an international legal team to work on the case. From 2008 through 2011 the CJA-led legal team brought more than 30 indigenous Guatemalans and a dozen expert witnesses to testify before the Spanish National Court and introduce evidence of genocide and other war crimes. Much of this testimony would later be introduced by the Guatemalan prosecution.

Building in part on the evidence developed in the case in Spain, Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz issued an indictment for Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez for genocide and crimes against humanity on Jan. 26, 2012. Two days later, Judge Miguel Angel Gálvez, magistrate of the High Risk Crimes Court, ordered Montt and Sánchez to stand trial on allegations that they ordered 15 massacres against Maya Ixil in three municipalities in the department of Quiché, killing 1,771 people and displacing 29,000. Crimes against humanity is defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as a number of specific acts including but not limited to murder, torture, extermination, rape, and enforced disappearance “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.”

Judge Gálvez established that there was legal justification for a trial. Galvez's reasoning was based on both domestic and international law and factual evidence that pointed to the military’s identification of the whole Ixil population as subversive, as well as the military’s systematic methods of attack on Ixil communities. Presentation of the evidence began on Jan. 31, 2013. Key pieces of evidence in the trial included one of documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates’ outtakes, in which Ríos Montt states, “If I can’t control the army, what am I doing here?” Other important evidence included witness testimony of systematic rapes and killings, as well as forensic anthropological evidence supporting their testimony.

 
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