On January 28th, a Guatemalan judge ordered that Jose Efrain Rios Montt, the de facto president of Guatemala from 1982 to ’83, and his former Chief of Intelligence stand trial for charges of crimes against humanity and genocide. The subject of the legal complaint is in regards to various massacres that resulted in the death of 1,771 indigenous Mayan-Ixils during Rios Montt’s time in office. As of Thursday January 31st, the judge initiated proceedings by announcing that he would be accepting evidence for the trial.
Over 30 years have passed since the crimes in question were committed but it is only now, in a step that Human Rights Watch called “historic,” that Rios Montt is being made to formally address the charges made against him. Although his military dictatorship ended after 17 months, he is nonetheless considered responsible for the bloodiest period in the 37-year long Guatemalan Civil War.
According to a UN-sponsored report, the specific targeting of Mayan peoples was concentrated during his presidency. During this time, the indigenous community of Guatemala suffered massacres; actions that had as a motive to “annihilate the group[s], physically and spiritually;” and the complete destruction of their villages and livelihoods. The latter of these three operations was most prevalent in the Ixil region of the country, “where between 70% and 90% of villages were razed.”
The former head of state has managed to avoid entering the courtroom since 1999, when Nobel Peace prize recipient Rigoberta Manchú filed a complaint to a Spanish court. It was stalled until 2006, whereupon a Spanish judge issued an international warrant for Rios Montt’s arrest. However, at the time he was still involved in Guatemalan politics, having won a seat in its Congress, and so enjoyed parliamentary immunity.
When he ended his legislative position, so did his immunity. Two weeks later Rios Montt was formally charged in a Guatemalan court but was kept under house arrest as his lawyers fought the conviction. They have successfully kept him out of court by arguing both that he was unaware of the crimes perpetuated by lower-ranking officers, and that regardless, he is also exonerated by an article of the Guatemalan constitution that grants amnesty to all those involved in the internal conflict that ravished the country from 1960 to 1996.
Nevertheless, the judge thought otherwise, stating that the former dictator must have been aware of the violent acts; since his government was, according to military conventions, vertically organized. In addition, the amnesty defense would be considered inadmissible in court given that Guatemala has no right to offer such amnesty within the international community as they independently recognize the crimes leveled against Rios Montt.
While the court has begun accepting evidence for the commencement of the trial, the defendant’s lawyers announced that they would begin working on an appeal. If they are denied and ultimately lose the case, then Efrain Rios Montt will go down in history as being the first former president to ever be charged in Latin America with genocide.
All the same, regardless of the verdict, the trial is turning out to be of historical importance for the people who suffered as a result of Rios Montt’s presidency. The indigenous people of Guatemala, who make up around 40% of the total population, have repeatedly called for justice. Their pleas have gone unheeded as the years have progressed, making their case all the less relevant in terms of national discourses. This is also the case with the many indigenous communities that continue to reside in Latin America, as they have similarly seen their rights and freedoms come under attack by governments that have sought to marginalize and even exterminate them entirely. Hence, even if the trial is not successful in sentencing Rios Montt, it will still serve as a beacon of sorts that will inspire similar communities to seek justice.
– Ralph Muzquiz
(Featured photo: Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License. millikengenocideproject.wikispaces.com
Photo 1: The Advocacy Project, Creative Commons, Flickr)