Former Guatemalan leader Rios Montt found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity; Constitutional Court nullifies ruling to consternation of human rights advocates
In 2013, Guatemala's former military leader, Efrain Rios Montt, faced trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in a court room in Guatemala City. While Rios Montt has maintained his innocence, prosecutors were arguing that he intended to exterminate the indigenous population, casting them as supportive of left wing rebels.
Rios Montt served as a general in the Guatemalan army and came to power via a coup d'etat in March 1982. Although he was, himself, ousted in an internal military coup in August 1983, the 17-18 month period during which Rios Montt was in power was marked by some of the worst offenses in Guatemala's modern history.
Despite this dubious distinction, Rios Montt was able to contest the 2003 presidential election as the candidate of the Guatemalan Republican Front , albeit unsuccessfully. He was also able to return to public office in 2007 as a member of Congress. That legislative service earned Rios Montt prosecutorial immunity, essentially protecting him from having to face justice for the long list of disturbing allegations attributed to him. His time in Congress came to an end in January 2012 and later in that month, Rios Montt was formally indicted on the aforementioned charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
These particular charges of genocide and crimes against humanity centered on Rios Montt's involvement with the massacres of close to 1,800 indigenous Maya and the forced displacement of close to 30,000 more people. As indicated just above, General Rios Montt's time in power -- from 1982 to 1983 - has the dubious distinction of being a reign of terror and bloodshed, with the indigenous population and leftists in Guatemala being the primary victims. Human rights groups have cast the former leader's program of terror, abuse, and brutal violation as a "scorched earth policy."
Of course, while the massacre of the almost 1,800 indigenous Maya was one of the most heinous episodes of Guatemala's recent history, it was only one episode in a dark era of the civil war. The so-called "Dos Erres" massacre was another. To that end, in late May 2012, a judge ruled that Rios Montt would face another genocide trial (separate from the one convened in March 2013, as discussed above) -- this time in relation to the killing of 200 people in the town of Dos Erres. When Judge Patricia Flores ruled on May 21, 2012, that there was enough evidence to try Rios Montt in connection with the 1982 massacre of more than 200 villagers in Dos Erres, the courtroom -- filled with relatives of victims and human rights activists -- erupted in applause.
For his part, Rios Montt has maintained his innocence. During the initial hearing, he declared: "It is under military law, your honor, that I declare that I am innocent." Defense lawyers for Rios Montt have argued that he was not even present during the killing of the villagers in Dos Erres. Nevertheless, prosecutors noted that it was Rios Montt who authorized the military operation, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people. Prevailing suspicion that residents of the town of Dos Erres were sheltering left-wing guerrillas led to the massacre there when a special unit of the Guatemalan army called the "Kaibiles" stormed Dos Erres. Then, over the course of three days, the Kaibiles systematically murdered hundreds of people. Many of the victims -- including men, women, and children -- were shot execution-style or bludgeoned to death, and their bodies were disposed of in a well.
It should be noted that during the initial court hearing in 2012 for the aforementioned genocide and crimes against humanity charges, Rios Montt refused to utter a word. He was ultimately released on bail although he was placed him under house arrest pending his trial. In March 2012, Rios Montt sought legal amnesty from the genocide charges but his request was denied by a Guatemalan judge. Accordingly, as stated here, the trial of former Guatemalan leader, Rios Montt, in this case began a year later.
Almost a year later, on March 19, 2013, former Guatemalan leader Efrain Rios Montt was facing trial in a courtroom in Guatemala City. According to the United Nations, it was the first time a former head of state has faced justice in a national court for crimes against humanity, making the exercise of jurisprudence and accountability a historic one. As stated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay: "This is the first time, anywhere in the world, that a former head of state is being put on trial for genocide by a national tribunal." It should be noted that although lawyers for Rios Montt attempted to delay the proceedings, the court rejected their request.
As stated above, while Rios Montt has maintained his innocence, prosecutors were arguing that he intended to exterminate the indigenous population, casting them as supportive of left wing rebels. The prosecution had acknowledged that there was no direct evidence connecting Rios Montt to the killings, but they had no shortage of witness accounts to provide testimony. The trial was expected to highlight these two positions and go on for several months.
At the start of April 2013, President Otto Perez Molina was implicated in the civil war atrocities and abuses on the table for debate during the court case against Rios Montt. During testimony, Hugo Reyes, a former member of Guatemala's armed forces, said Perez commanded soldiers who shot and killed civilians, and also destroyed their homes during the civil war between leftists and the right-wing authorities. As stated by Reyes in testimony before the war crimes court: "The soldiers under the orders of Major Tito Arias, known as Otto Perez Molina, Francisco Marin, and the officers they were in charge of, and the commander of the company of engineers, coordinated the burning (of homes) and pulling people out so they could execute them." Reyes' declaration evoked audible gasps in the court room from those in attendance. Reyes also recounted the manner in which soldiers abducted and tortured civilians at a military base, saying, "Some had their tongues cut out and their fingernails removed and other injuries. The army officers said to them: 'Sons of bitches, talk or we'll cut out your tongues.'" Reyes also pointed to the de facto policy of targeting the indigenous Maya population saying, "Indian seen, Indian dead. That was the motto they had."
For his part, Perez was elected to power in 2011. Although the former general led government troops during Guatemala's decades-long civil war against the left-wing rebels, he has never himself been charged with any abuses. This testimony by Reyes was the first outright implication of President Perez' involvement in the darkest chapter of Guatemala's modern history.
On April 18, 2013, in a shocking twist, a Guatemalan judge suspended the trial of Efrain Rios Montt. Judge Carol Patricia Flores made it clear that she was not acting of her own volition but was, instead, following a directive from the country's Supreme Court. She said, "I am not doing this because I want to, but because it has been ordered by the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court." In the court, some of the people present screamed "Murderer" in the direction of Rios Montt.
There was speculation that the move had been orchestrated by President Otto Perez Molina who, as discussed above, was himself being implicated in the list of atrocities committed during this dark chapter in Guatemalan recent history. As stated by Daniel Pascual of the United Peasants Committee, "We believe there are other factors that have violated this process."
That speculation gained strength when an investigative journalist, Allan Nairn, made the claim that the president had indeed intervened in the case, and that associates of the Guatemalan army were threatening the lives of case judges and prosecutors. As reported by Democracy Now for the Pacifica network, Nairn traveled to Guatemala to testify in Ríos Montt’s trial as a "qualified witness." Indeed, Nairn supposedly documented military involvement in the massacres and was prepared to present evidence that personally implicated President Perez Molina. According to Democracy Now, Nairn was not allowed on the stand to offer his account in order "to avoid a confrontation" with the president, and amidst anxieties that the testimony might spark an outbreak of violence.
While CountryWatch cannot independently verify Nairn's claim of evidence, he was nonetheless listed as a witness by the court. As well, while CountryWatch cannot assert in unambiguous terms that the trial was stopped for the reasons outlines by Nairn, it was nonetheless true that the trial had been abruptly ended.
Regardless, it was clear that the end of the trial against Rios Montt was a serious blow to indigenous victims and to the priority of justice and accountability in a country like Guatemala, with a terrible record of human rights abuse against the indigenous people of Guatemala. As noted by Martin Nesirky, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said: "This is a blow to the numerous victims of the atrocities committed during Guatemala's civil war who have been waiting more than 30 years for justice to be done." Likewise, Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, asserted the following statement: "For years, the Ríos Montt case and others like it have been delayed by dilatory maneuvers and acts of intimidation against victims and justice officials alike. The surprise decision to suspend the trial raises serious concerns that victims will be forced to repeat the heart-wrenching process of recounting the horrific abuses they suffered at the hands of security forces."
The international outcry appeared to have had some degree of an effect and when the tribunal handling the trial said it would not accept the judge's ruling that the trial be annulled. This declaration by Tribunal President Yasmin Barrios elicited a standing ovation in the court and shouts of "Justice! Justice!" Soon thereafter, the tribunal called on the country's Constitutional Court to make a decision on the status of the case but made it clear that its work on the case against Rios Montt would go on.
Overall, the trial of Rios Montt included testimony by approximately 100 prosecution witnesses who gave a mixture of harrowing and heartbreaking accounts of massacre, abuse, torture, and rape allegedly carried out by Guatemalan forces. It should be noted that defense lawyers for Rios Montt argued that these witnesses were not credible.
It should also be noted that the Reagan administration of the United States at the time supported the government of Rios Montt, with former President Ronald Reagan himself characterizing the former Guatemalan dictator as "a man of great personal integrity." Of course, this was during the laters years of the Cold War when United States policy was predicated on opposing leftist political movements across the world and augmenting right-wing administrations, regardless of their (arguably debatable) human rights records.
By May 2013, all attention was on the outcome of the trial, the fate of Rios Montt, and the question of whether or not the call of justice for so many of Guatemala's indigenous people would be answered by judicial powers. To that end, on May 11, 2012, Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. In delivering the verdict, Judge Yasmin Barrios said: "He had full knowledge of everything that was happening and did not stop it." As the verdict came down, hundreds of trial watchers in the court room erupted in applause and chants of "Finally! Justice!" Among those in the court room were indigenous Maya dressed in traditional garb, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. For her part, Menchu hailed the verdict saying, "Today we are happy, because for many years it was said that genocide was a lie, but today the court said it was true."
The court ruling was the first time in history a former Latin American head of state has been found guilty of the charge of genocide in his or her own home country. The court also handed down a 50 years in prison sentence for the genocide charge and another 30 years for crimes against humanity. If these sentences were to be carried out as ordered, Rios Montt -- already in his 80s -- was sure to spend the rest of his life behind bars for the abuses, violence and massacres committed against indigenous people and leftists during his time in office. Accordingly, the human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, applauded the ruling and sentences as a historic victory.
But that victory was short-lived as on May 21, 2013, Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned the genocide conviction of Rios Montt and ordered on Monday that his trial be re-restarted. Martin Guzman, the secretary of the Constitutional Court, explained that with the ruling annulled, the trial would have to be restarted from the position it stood on April 19, 2013, in order to resolve a number of appeal issued by the defense. In this way, the statements and testimony offered before April 19, 2013 would stand in tact; however, closing arguments would have to be offered again. Amnesty International said that the decision was a "devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict."
Overall, more than 200,000 people either died or disappeared in the civil war in Guatemala that lasted three decades and only finally ended in the 1990s. That dark era was marked by a harsh crackdown on left-wing guerrillas by security forces, and with the ethnic indigenous Maya population being the main victims. General Rios Montt's time in power, from 1982 to 1983, was akin to a reign of terror and bloodshed, and was distinguished as the darkest chapter of the long-running civil war. Indeed, this period was known for being a time when repression by the military government reached its peak and deaths averaged around 1,000 per month under the rule of Rios Montt. To date, Guatemala has the dubious distinction of being one of the countries in the Western Hemisphere with an atrocious human rights record. In many senses the country is still dealing with the aftermath of the civil war that began in 1960, and which involved military dictatorships and leftist rebels, but also included armed paramilitary groups who never quite disarmed following the end of the civil war in 1996. More than a decade after the end of its civil war, Guatemala has been divided between the ruling elite and the predominantly indigenous farming and laboring class, most of whom are impoverished.
Written by Dr. Denise Coleman,
Editor in Chief, www.countrywatch.com
May 22, 2013
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