Inside the Historic Genocide Trial of a Guatemalan Dictator

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.

From the beginning, the defense attorneys lodged (and attempted to lodge) one amparo appeal after another and sought other means to delay the trial. (“Amparo” is roughly equivalent to a writ for constitutional protection of individual rights.) Since November 2011, the defense has lodged over 100 procedural challenges. The prosecution repeatedly accused the defense of making abusive use of these amparos and slowing the process of justice. The defense countered that the entire trial was unfair and that the context of civil war – which occurred from approximately 1960 to 1996 – in which the alleged genocide and crimes against humanity took place was sufficient justification for any killings that occurred. The few defense witnesses who testified during the trial attempted to shift blame from the military to the guerillas, asserting both that guerillas had killed the Ixil villagers and that Ixiles had been helping the guerillas and so put themselves in danger.

Preliminary phases of the trial took place in the courts of first instance before Judge Gálvez and Judge Carol Patricia Flores. Initially, the case was assigned to Judge Flores, but the defense was granted an order for her recusal in November 2011 on grounds of partiality. Judge Gálvez took over from there, before the case moved on to the three-judge panel in the sentencing court. (In Guatemala, courts of first instance oversee preliminary hearings to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to move to trial. The sentencing courts oversee trials to determine ultimate culpability.) When the trial proceedings came to a standstill on April 18, 2013, it was because Judge Flores determined that her recusal was invalid, and that she should have been the one to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to move to trial.

The trial began on March 20, 2013, but Ríos Montt’s two defense attorneys were missing. Another attorney stepped in to notify the panel of judges – chief judge Yassmin Barrios, judge Pablo Xitumul and judge Patricia Bustamante – that he had been called two hours earlier to participate in the trial and sought a five-day delay to prepare for the proceedings. In response to this and other procedural challenges brought by the defense, the panel of judges repeatedly stated that they would not tolerate delays to the judicial process.

Notwithstanding the judges’ persistence, after four weeks of trial and the presentation of the prosecution’s entire case, the defense finally managed to thwart the judicial process sufficiently to halt the proceedings. The defense counsel declared that the trial was proceeding illegally. They then walked out of the courtroom. The crowd responded loudly, though it had been quiet and respectful in the preceding four weeks of trial and the testimony of over 100 witnesses. There was a great uproar of hissing, clapping and shouting. Red flowers were thrown at the defense attorneys as they left the courtroom. Chief Judge Barrios told security guards to return the attorneys to the courtroom, but the defendants continued to sit alone at their long wooden table until the judges ended the trial for the day. Ríos Montt sat calmly with his hands folded in front of him. Rodríguez Sánchez, in his wheelchair, was similarly unwavering, even as photographers and videographers encircled them, shutters whirring, tapes spinning.

In line with the defense’s declaration, Judge Flores of the court of first instance issued an order that annulled the oral phase of the trial, based on unresolved evidentiary issues. On the following day, the three-judge panel issued a statement that Judge Flores’ order was illegal and would not be followed. The defense attorneys had not returned to the courtroom. Judge Barrios stated (based on a translation provided by the Open Justice Society), “We will not permit the infringement of this tribunal’s independence. We are not obliged to comply with an order that violates our jurisdiction. We obey the Constitution, and the Constitutional Court is the only instance that can decide to annul a trial. This is content of our resolution.” Judge Flores’ order provoked a similar response from the international community, and many ambassadors turned out for proceedings the following day to show their support for the trial’s continuation.

And continue it did. Chief Judge Barrios appointed two public defenders to take the place of Ríos Montt’s and Rodríguez Sánchez’s attorneys, who had walked out of the courtroom on April 18 and failed to return. Montt rejected his new attorney and called another who had been formerly removed from the case but was later reinstated by the appeals court. The panel then recessed the proceedings until Friday, May 3, 2013, so that Rodríguez Sánchez’s new attorney could familiarize himself with the case. The resumption of the trial was considered a major success, particularly after what looked like a derailing of the process.

In the final weeks of this trial, the courtroom was packed with crowds anticipating closing arguments, and who feared that the trial would be annulled. The 86-year-old Ríos Montt and the wheelchair-bound Rodríguez Sánchez appeared unruffled even when their attorneys left the courtroom in one of the many defense ploys to thwart the justice process.

Cameras were everywhere, with reporters lining the stairs and setting up tripods without regard for aisle space. Young men and women sporting the light blue vests of the United Nations watched attentively as the proceedings spun on below, “Derechos Humanos” emblazoned on their backs. Other international observers listened through earphones to translators, who lingered near the speakers to hear above the humming air conditioner.

Indigenous women dressed in brightly colored huipiles and cortes turned out in great numbers for the trial, especially in its waning days, and some indigenous men, notable for their wide-brimmed hats, could be seen scattered throughout the tiered rows of seats. The Ixil Mayan women sat together, a cluster of red skirts and anxious faces Рafter all, this trial would determine the very specific issue of whether the accused were guilty of genocide of the Ixiles in northern Quich̩. The crowd seemed wary but excited, knowing they were seeing history in the making, believing that some form of justice would soon be had. Nothing like this had ever happened. Not in Guatemala. Not anywhere. No former head of state had ever been tried in domestic courts for genocide committed in the same state.

For another week, the conclusion of the trial remained uncertain.

Finally, on May 10, 2013, the three-judge panel declared Ríos Montt guilty on all counts. His former chief of intelligence, Rodríguez Sánchez, was found innocent. In his nearly hour-long post-conviction statement, Montt noted that the commanding officer in charge of the El Quiché region should be held accountable for the Ixil Mayan deaths at issue in this trial. That officer is now president of Guatemala: Otto Perez Molina commanded troops in the Ixil town Nebaj during Ríos Montt’s time as de facto president.

At the conclusion of the trial, the international human rights community celebrated the success of the judicial process in Guatemala, though it remains unclear whether this case will serve as precedent for similar prosecutions, or if it will instead serve as the token conviction for years of human rights abuses orchestrated by many members – both past and present – of the government.

For now, the only thing that is certain is that the trial is not over. Only 10 days after the guilty verdict was delivered, it was overturned by the Constitutional Court, in a 3-2 ruling, kicking the trial back to where it was on April 19. In fits and starts, justice continues in Guatemala.


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