The trial ended on Friday with the conviction of Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison by the three judge panel.
The charges against Rios Montt former dictator and his co-accused Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, then head of military intelligence, were based on massacres, forced displacement, torture, rape and sexual assault perpetrated against Guatemala’s Mayan Ixil communities in 1982 and 1983, at the height of the country’s bloody internal armed conflict when Rios Montt was president as a result of a coup.
The trial marks the first time a former head of state has been prosecuted for genocide in a domestic, rather than an international, court. The co-accused Sanchez was acquitted on the grounds that he did not have command responsibility.
Although the crimes had been committed over 30 years ago, the court heard testimony from dozens of massacre survivors, some of whom were young children when Guatemalan forces attacked and razed their villages. Their stories helped show that the military considered all Ixil civilians, including children, to be legitimate military targets. The trial also heard particularly horrendous evidence of the widespread practice of rape that occurred during massacres and as part of the military occupation.
“Judge Barrios said today that all of Guatemala was harmed by these crimes. Today, all of Guatemala should now be proud of the capacity of its institutions and the courage of the authorities who prosecuted and tried this case,” explained Marcie Mersky, ICTJ Program Director. “Despite the many difficulties and remaining legal challenges, Guatemala has set an example for the region and the rest of the world in the struggle for accountability.
As the verdict was announced supporters of the prosecution, relatives of the victims, and observers from community and human rights organisations wept, applauded, sang and shouted ‘justice, justice, justice’ from the packed court room.
‘It’s a historic judgement, the proof was conclusive’ said the lawyer for the prosecution from CALDH (Centre for Legal Action of Human Rights).
In contrast lawyer Fransisco Garcia Gudiel, one of the dictators lawyers said ‘the sentence shows a breakdown in justice because it has violated the human rights of the process, it is a political monstrosity’.
In ‘Prensa Libre’ Rios Montt is reported as saying that it was ‘un show politico internacional’ and that his lawyers would try to annul the sentence.
The trial comes fourteen years after the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission concluded that agents of the Guatemalan state had committed acts of genocide against the Mayan Ixil people and other ethnic groups, and that the state had an obligation to investigate and sanction those crimes. It paves the way for others involved in the massacres to be brought to justice.