Last week, plaintiffs in the case against Ríos Montt filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, DC against the Guatemalan government for failing to provide victims in the genocide case adequate access to justice, in violation of the American Convention on Human Rights.
At a separate event to discuss perspectives on the ongoing trial, Edgar Pérez – one of the lead Guatemalan prosecutors representing victims – sought to clarify why the case was annulled just 10 days after the guilty verdict was delivered. In his opinion, the defense’s legal strategy was to create technical glitches (such as changing lawyers at the last minute) which would disrupt and delay the trial. Simultaneously, supporters of Ríos Montt worked to shape public opinion of the case, both by disseminating the claim there was “no genocide in Guatemala” – an idea propagated by the country’s powerful business association and high level government officials – as well as through campaigns to criminalize those speaking out about historic memory.
The annulment sent the trial back to a midway point, a confusing and legally questionable scenario in which the same panel of judges cannot hear the same case, yet new judges cannot step in because they haven’t been party to the evidence already presented. The trial, therefore, would have to start again from the very beginning. “Because of one person, all of the advances we were making in the justice system in Guatemala were halted,” said Pérez.Responding to a question, raised repeatedly, regarding why lawyers chose to position the case as one of genocide instead of war crimes, Pérez replied that it was possible to use declassified military documents to prove that the state policy of violence was carried out against a specific ethnic group, the Ixil Maya. The state had defined them as internal enemies who needed to be “destroyed,” which constituted genocide.
Francisco Soto, Executive Director for the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), elaborated that labeling the case one of genocide was also crucial in confronting the issue of racism and learning as a society how to move forward. “If we know it is genocide but don’t present a genocide case,” said Soto, “We are doing the victims a disservice.”
Two survivors from the Ixil region, representing the victim’s organization Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), also spoke out at the event, offering personal testimony of the horrific violence, torture, and displacement that they and their communities endured during the internal conflict.
“It is really important for the victims that there is recognition that this happened,” said one of the survivors. “We have a simple way of life, but we value our dignity. We have a right to the truth – for them to explain why they did what they did to us – so that our young people don’t experience this same kind of suffering.”
According to Soto, 90% of witnesses who testified against Ríos Montt and Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez said that they were speaking out because they didn’t want their children to go through the horrors that they themselves had experienced. “It was not about money,” said Soto, regarding the wishes of the victims. “But for many victims, the conviction of Ríos Montt is hugely important as a symbol of justice.”
Pérez, Soto, and the two representatives of survivors from the Ixil expressed the importance of support from the international community in bolstering civil society organizations in Guatemala, raising public awareness of the case, and providing information to the US embassy in Guatemala.
“I want to tell my story here in Washington,” said one of the genocide survivors, “to put pressure on Guatemala to keep the original verdict.”
Soto affirmed that the timing is crucial, as the justice system – which had seen many improvements leading up to the Ríos Montt conviction – now stands stagnant and at risk of moving backwards.
“If we don’t choose the best people in the next few years,” said Soto, “all of our progress may be lost.”
Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez were indicted on charges of genocide and war in January 2013. The charges included 60 massacres of Maya Ixil communities, that left approximately 1771 dead, as well as numerous victims of forced disappearance, sexual violence, torture and forced displacement. The trail began on March 19, and over the next month the court heard testimony from 100 survivors and over 40 expert witnesses. On May 10, the court found Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and war crimes, becoming the first head of state to be charged (and found guilty) of genocide by domestic courts. The co-defendant, Rodríguez Sánchez, was absolved on both counts. The verdict was annulled on May 20, 2013.