Retrial of Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity

The retrial of Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity is due to start on the 5th January, tomorrow, in Guatemala.

While the defense lawyers are doing what they can to delay or postpone the trial, or even get it thrown out, it is still due to take place. This being Guatemala though……….

I thought it might be useful to repost the Introduction section of the report by Open Society Justice Initiative, titled Judging a Dictator: The Trial of Guatemala’s Rios Montt. This provides useful background to the case, as well as a brief summary of what took place in the trial itself. I have removed the footnotes.

You can read the full report, including all the footnotes, here.

Judging a Dictator: The Trial of Guatemala’s Rios Montt – Introduction
“The genocide trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt in early 2013 demonstrated both how far Guatemala has come in efforts to challenge impunity, and how much remains to be done.

Ríos Montt was the de facto head of state in Guatemala for seventeen months in 1982 and 1983, coming to power as a result of a military coup and leaving by the same route. He was but one among a line of brutal military rulers, yet the period in which Ríos Montt ruled was the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. A UN truth commission later specifically found that the state was responsible for acts of genocide in four designated regions of Guatemala between 1981 and 1983.
In the predominantly Ixil towns in Quiché, between 70 and 90 percent of the communities were wiped out during this period.

In a development that would have been unimaginable only years earlier, on May 10, 2013 in a Guatemala City courtroom, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacres, forced displacement, rape and torture of Guatemala’s Maya Ixil population under his rule. His then head of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was tried alongside him but acquitted on the same day on the ground that he did not have command authority.

There have been a growing number of cases challenging military leaders and heads of state for serious crimes, especially in Latin America. However, Guatemala’s progress in coming to terms with atrocities committed during its internal armed conflict has been painfully slow.

Various general amnesty decrees were issued during the war. Laws established in 1996 and 1997 as part of the peace and transition process repealed all prior amnesty laws and established, in their place, a limited amnesty which explicitly excluded from its scope prosecution for genocide, torture, forced disappearance and other international crimes. Nonetheless, claims of international crimes filed with the Public Ministry remained there, effectively static, for years.

The Ríos Montt case arose out of a petition to the Guatemalan Public Ministry in 2001 filed by victims’ representatives seeking an investigation and prosecution of the generals responsible for some of the worst abuses committed during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict. Individuals introduced a separate but related case before the Spanish National Court in 1999. The Spanish National Court issued arrest warrants and extradition orders in 2006, in the end unheeded; and heard testimony of victims and experts in 2008 and 2009. That case remains pending. But Guatemalan prosecutors only began to pursue international crimes from Guatemala’s civil war about five years prior to the Ríos Montt verdict.

In the past five years, important reforms, leadership changes, and innovative collaborations have resulted in notable progress in strengthening the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Guatemala. New leadership in the Public Ministry — with Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz assuming her position in 2010 — created new opportunities for these cases to advance. Significant recent reforms include the creation of specialized “high-risk” courts and the designation of judges and prosecutorial units focused on complex cases. Reforms of the Public Ministry and the judiciary benefited from the 2007 establishment of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an independent international body established by the United Nations and the government of Guatemala with the mandate to conduct investigations and present complaints for prosecution, as well as support reforms.

Long-stalled prosecutions picked up steam; some resulted in convictions. Still, before the trial of Ríos Montt, virtually all of the nearly 30 people convicted for crimes committed during the country’s internal armed conflict were low-level soldiers, police, paramilitaries, or members of the civilian patrols established by the military.

The Ríos Montt trial thus forced the question of whether justice would end there.

While Ríos Montt was named in the initial complaint, he was only indicted in 2012 after he lost congressional immunity. In early 2013, a trial date was set, more than a decade after victims’ representatives brought the case to the Public Ministry.

Over nearly two months in a Guatemala courtroom, a three-judge panel demonstrated the possibilities for justice to be blind, and for a domestic court to judge the most powerful for the most heinous of crimes committed against the most vulnerable. Scores of witnesses testified to horrendous atrocities, and by their presence expressed their faith in the potential of an independent judiciary decades after the crimes. Military, forensic, statistics, sociology, psychology and history experts testified for the prosecution and, to a lesser degree, the defense. The court reviewed copious documentary evidence. The political context complicated the trial, but it did not stop it from concluding.

On May 17, 2013, the trial court issued a 718-page judgment elaborating the bases for the court’s verdict. This publication presents an overview of the trial and the trial court’s decision, as well as the translation of a portion of the judgment that laid the factual and legal foundation for the conviction.

The trial and judgment represented a significant shift for Guatemala, and also for international justice. This was the first conviction in the world of a former head of state for genocide in a domestic, rather than international, court. Even absent the genocide conviction, it was a rare domestic conviction of a former ruler for the authorship of gross human rights violations.

The verdict was as historic and meticulous as it was short-lived. On May 20, 2013, only three days after the issuance of the judgment, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court annulled part of the proceeding and, in a contentious and divided ruling, set the trial back to an earlier stage of the process.

The Ríos Montt trial presented a renewed opportunity for an independent judiciary to play its role in uncovering both truth and justice related to one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history. The fact that the trial took place at all is a testament to the conviction and sustained pressure of victims and human rights defenders, as well as the significance of recent reforms. The testimony presented, and the judgment issued, is part of the historical record. However, the fact that its end is still uncertain, even after a verdict and an extensive judgment, is a sign that there are still grave challenges to an independent judiciary, and certainty to the rule of law, in Guatemala.”

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Categories: Genocide, Justice, Rios Montt

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