When former Guatemalan leader, José Efraín Ríos Montt, was found guilty of genocide on 10 May, it was a historical moment not only in the country, but for the world. It was the first time a former leader had been put on trial and convicted of genocide – one of the four crimes and violations within the Responsibility to Protect framework – by a national, rather than international, court. For the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a Guatemala-based organization founded by survivors of the state’s military campaign against indigenous villages 12 years ago, the conviction was “an opportunity to recuperate the truth that has been denied to our families and to the Guatemalan society…it was an opportunity to confront the past and address the root causes of the discrimination” they had suffered. Human Right Watch‘s Americas Director, José Miguel Vicanco, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) also welcomed the verdict, with USHMM stating that it “sent a powerful message…to the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide.” It was a victory for justice and the ongoing fight against impunity as well as another step towards healing for the victims and society – until the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the conviction on 20 May . We are now left to wonder where the case stands, what this will mean for the victims and what effect this will have on justice and reconciliation in Guatemala.
Atrocities committed – the crimes and the verdict
An estimated 200,000 people were killed and over 1 million displaced during Guatemala’s 36 year-long civil war, which spanned from 1960-1996, with some 83% of the victims being indigenous Ixil Maya. Ríos Montt was sentenced by Guatemala’s top court to 80 years in prison for his role as the “intellectual author” of the killing of 1,771 people and the displacement of tens of thousands during his 17 months as president between 1982 and 1983. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the key question throughout the trial was whether Ríos Montt intentionally targeted Ixil Mayan communities while conducting the counterinsurgency campaign waged against guerillas operating in the Ixil region. Despite strong evidence against him, which included testimony by over 100 witnesses – including psychologists, military personnel, and victims -who told horrific stories of killings, sexual violence and the destruction of communities, Ríos Montt denied his role in ordering the genocide of the Mayan population, saying, “I never authorized, I never proposed, I never ordered acts against any ethnic or religious group.” Nonetheless, on 10 May, Judge Jazmin Barrios, announced that the court found Ríos Montt did plan and order the brutal campaign. In reading the summary of the verdict, Judge Barrios stated “We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group” which had been considered public enemies of the state and an inferior race, and concluded that the “violence against them, was not spontaneous but planned.”
An imperfect trial? Prosecution challenges the Ríos Montt proceedings
With Ixil Mayan witnesses and victims testifying about massacres, torture, systematic sexual violence and the destruction of the Mayan culture, the trial, which began on 19 March, stirred up much interest and debate in Guatemala and abroad. While international human rights organizations celebrated the conviction, it was met with some controversy at home. The Constitutional Court was the target of lobbying by opponents to the verdict, including the state’s powerful business federation, Cacif, because they believed such a case tarnished the reputation of Guatemalans, equating them with the Nazis.
The trial proceedings themselves were also rife with drama and complications. From the beginning, one of Ríos Montt’s lawyers, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, challenged Judge Barrios’ legitimacy, accusing her of bias and partiality. This claim that the court was unable to deliver a fair verdict and the attempt to challenge the judges led Mr. Garcia Gudiel to be expelled on the first day, although he would be later reinstated. The issues didn’t stop there, as the rest of the defense team stormed out of the court on 18 April in protest at what they called “illegal proceedings”. The next day Mr. Garcia Gudiel was again expelled, this time for a few hours, after accusing Judge Barrios of failing to hear his legal challenges. The defense team used the second expulsion to declare to the Constitutional Court that their client was deprived of the lawyer of his choice, leading to an order that there be no sentencing until the issues had been resolved. The tribunal, however, disobeyed that order and issued their sentence of Ríos Montt’s case.According to Geoff Thale, an expert on Guatemala at the Washington Office on Latin America, as evidence presented during the trial clearly showed that Ríos Montt had ordered soldiers to burn indigenous villages and kill members of the Ixil group, his legal team’s only “tactic was to go after the judges who presided over the case.” The prosecutors consistently asserted that the defense strategy relied on constitutional challenges to delay or obstruct the trial. As the trial came to an end, defense lawyers announced that they would appeal, and appeal they did. This led to the three-to-two ruling by a panel of Constitutional judges to annul everything that had happened during the proceedings since 19 April, when Ríos Montt was briefly left without a defense lawyer and the trial should have come to a halt until the unresolved defense appeals had been resolved.
Hitting the reset button on justice?
The details of the annulment and how the trial plans to “hit the reset button” to 19 April remain unclear. The Constitutional Court has said that statements delivered in court before 19 April would stand, but all testimonies after that would be invalid, and the closing arguments would have to be given again but, as legal experts have said, repeating the final days before the same tribunal would amount to double jeopardy. As we wait to understand the possible outcomes of the Constitutional Court decision what is certain is that the decision was a blow to human rights advocates everywhere who “had called his conviction a sign that Guatemala’s courts would no longer allow impunity for the country’s powerful.” The Inter-American Court of Human Rights criticized the “abusive use of the appeal [for legal protection] as a delaying practice” to prevent human rights prosecutions. According to Minority Rights Group International, “this ruling of the Constitutional Court shows the weakness in Guatemala’s justice system,” and serves as a barrier to achieving accountability. Impunity Watch also released a critical statement on the situation, saying, “The decision of the Constitutional Court legitimizes the systematic and abusive legal procedures and formalities, widely condemned by Guatemalan society and international organizations…The politicized environment that is serving as a framework for the decision of the Constitutional Court only reinforces the country’s existing social perception that justice in Guatemala is neither independent nor impartial and that it favors those with the power and money to position themselves above the legal system.” While the attempt to seek justice is not over, the survivors and victims who gave evidence of the systematic violence may have to face a return to court, presenting a potentially serious challenge as “they may have lost their faith in the country’s legal system.”
Breakdown in trust: what does this mean for Guatemalan society?
Finding Ríos Montt guilty of genocide showed the Ixil Mayan population that the violence and brutal crimes committed against them would not be accepted and that perpetrators, regardless of their level of power, would be held to account. It offered hope to victims of atrocities around the world that justice can be served. Before the announcement of the annulment, Impunity Watch celebrated and declared that “this is an example of how justice should be the vehicle to generate social trust in the state. It can end violence, polarization and conflict.”
Amnesty International believes that, by overturning the historical verdict, the Constitutional Court has snatched away the rights of the Ixil Mayan people to truth, justice and reparations. According to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, the annulment has taken place in the context where business elites and groups linked to the military, which was responsible for carrying out the violence, rejected the sentence. By rejecting the original verdict, and in turn supporting human rights perpetrators, these groups have encouraged social polarization, and present another barrier to reconciliation within the country. As Manfredo Marroquin, the President of Accion Cuidadana, a non-governmental organization committed to building democracy in Guatemala, puts it, “Impunity remains the only law of force in Guatemala” where the extreme weakness of the justice system makes the country “a major threat to regional democratic coexistence.”
The future of the Ríos Montt case
While no one knows what will happen next, we do know, as UN Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, reiterated, that ”the victims of the atrocities committed during the civil war in Guatemala and their families have waited many years for justice…[and] Justice delayed is justice denied.” We have seen in far too many countries what happens when states fail to bring those responsible for serious and massive human rights violations to justice – tensions, discrimination, and continued conflict. As Mr. Dieng reminded us, only with justice and accountability for atrocity crimes “can Guatemala consolidate its peace process and build trust and confidence among its diverse population. Such trust and the credibility of its institutions are indispensable for the prevention of future abuses”.
For more information on the trial, visit the Ríos Montt Trial website.