Pinochet escaped justice – we must ensure Rios Montt does not

Protest against impunity in Guatemala 10-11-2006 Photo: Fabian Fehse (copyright)

Yesterday The Guardian published an article I wrote about the recent media coverage regarding Pinochet”s death- and lack of any mention of Guatemala – despite the similarities. I referred specifically to The Guardian”s coverage- but I think you could include pretty much all the media and their coverage of Pinochet”s legacy.

“In all your extensive coverage of the death of Augusto Pinochet, there was one crucial omission (Reports, December 11-13). No one pointed out any of the obvious parallels between the case of the ex-Chilean dictator and that of General Efrain Rios Montt, former dictator of Guatemala (1982-83), who is today facing extradition to Spain for human rights abuses on a grand scale.

The similarities between the legal issues presented by Pinochet and Rios Montt are numerous. Both were military dictators who came to power in their respective Latin American countries as the result of a coup d”etat. Both were products of the cold war, enjoying US support in exchange for ruthlessly repressing any real or perceived threat of communism. Both have been accused of being the architects of widespread human rights abuses.

The case against Pinochet involved more than 3,000 deaths and disappearances at the hands of the security forces. During the 1960-96 conflict in Guatemala, as documented by a UN commission, some 200,000 people, predominantly Mayan, died or disappeared. At the height of the bloodshed under Rios Montt, reports put the number of killings and disappearances at more than 3,000 per month. Such was the extent of the violence that in 1999 the UN commission concluded that it constituted acts of genocide.

Just as in Chile, the fight for justice for the victims of Guatemalan state repression has been long and hard. And the significance of the Pinochet and Rios Montt cases is not only in the judgment reached by the House of Lords or Spanish authorities; it”s in the bravery of the people who”ve worked, often for years and at personal risk to themselves, collecting the evidence and testifying to establish cases that will stand up in court.

Living in Guatemala for many years, I learned how important it is to be able to support and accompany witnesses in the case against Rios Montt. Press exposure of threats and intimidation can act as a vital deterrent, yet with many actors shunning the limelight for good reason, the human stories behind the headline-grabbing legal milestones all too often go untold.

In December 1999, in the wake of Pinochet”s arrest in London, Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu and a group of Spanish and Guatemalan NGOs filed a suit in the Spanish national court against several senior Guatemalan officials, including Rios Montt. The defendants were accused of terrorism, genocide and systematic torture.

In a momentous decision in September 2005, the Spanish constitutional court ruled that Spain had to observe the principles of “universal jurisdiction” for certain crimes. So Spanish courts had jurisdiction over crimes of international importance – such as torture, crimes against humanity and genocide – regardless of the nationality of the victims and perpetrators. An extradition warrant for the arrest of Rios Montt was submitted the following month, and the Guatemalan constitutional court is currently considering the request.

Just as Pinochet did, Rios Montt faces possible extradition to Spain. Perhaps, though, the parallels between the two men are about to end. Pinochet at 91 died before facing sentencing; Rios Montt at 80 might yet face a judge and jury.”

Update 16-12-2006

Rooting around on different media networks- it was interesting that Lord Lamont (Norman Lamont former Chancellor of the Exchequer) in his “defense” of Pinochet refered to Guatemala:

“The loss of life during his period I think when looked at in the context of the times, other dictatorships in South America actually I think it was one of the more restrained dictatorships when you compare it with Guatemala or you compare it with Argentina…” [Source: ITN – you can view the full report here]

Niall Ferguson in the Sunday Telegraph (17-12-2006) expands on this variant of the Pinochet apology brigade- in a way that Lamont would probably sympathise with. The tired argument goes something like: Pinochet, Rios Montt are better because they”re our “sonsofbitches” not theirs (communist).

The Guardian has also published (16-12-2006) an article “The time expiring for dirty war prosecutors” which discusses the legal cases across Latin America that have been discussed or developed against state-sponsored repression. It refers to the situation in Guatemala in passing:

“And 10 years after U.N.-sponsored peace accords in Guatemala stilled the bloodiest of these conflicts, the discovery of a huge archive of files maintained by the notorious National Police may give the victims answers, if not justice…

“And in Guatemala, where the army and police killed 93 percent of the 200,000 people who died in the 1960-1996 civil war, the peace accords meant only a few dozen low-level soldiers stood trial.”

The issue of the fate of Rios Montt in the light of the death of Pinochet has sparked interesting discussions on a number of blogs. One of the largest and most exhaustive was this one on the Daily Kos where Meteor Blades was kind enough to cite my above article.

In Guatemala, the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission reported the following reactions to the death of Pinochet:

“La chilena Eda Gaviola, Directora del Centro de Accion Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH) comento que es paradojico que muera el Dia Internacional de los Derechos Humanos; “se va sin que se haga justicia”, dijo.

Aura Elena Farfan, de la asociacion Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos de Guatemala (FAMDEGUA) expreso que, “esperamos que Guatemala si pueda juzgar a los responsables de tantas masacres; que no pase como ahora con Pinochet, que se murio sin que fuera juzgado por sus crimenes”, afirmo.

Helen Mack, de la Fundacion Myrna Mack senalo que del lado humano se lamenta la muerte de cualquiera, pero Pinochet se murio con una deuda con la justicia.

Por su lado, Jose Eugenio Garavito, del antiguo Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional, lamento la muerte de Pinochet, pues tuvo una lucha incansable para combatir el comunismo. “Nos duele profundamente su padecimiento, y externamos el pesame a las fuerzas armadas chilenas”, apunto.”

Categories: Guatemala, Main Page, UK Press Review

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