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Brutal Dictator Rios Montt Gets off on a Technicality

For a while it looked as if Rios Montt would be the exception in Latin American history, where so many dictators have evaded punishment for the horrors committed under their watch.

On May 10, General Efrain Rios Montt, former military leader of Guatemala, was found guilty of overseeing the deliberate killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

Last Monday, May 20, Guatemala’s constitutional court overturned the conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity, throwing out all proceedings in his case since April 19. That was the day the Rios Montt was temporarily left without a legal defense as his lawyer was briefly expelled from the courtroom after he accused the presiding judge of bias against him.

All the testimonies and witness statements heard from that point onwards will have to be delivered again, in addition to the concluding statements from both sides. There’s no indication of when that will happen.

This is so obviously a charade and a farce that it would be hilarious, except that we are talking about a brutal dictator who on May 10 was convicted of ordering the deaths of almost 2,000 Maya.

The case against Rios Montt has been ongoing since 2001, but has been subject to a number of obstacles, including numerous constitutional appeals filed on his behalf and his immunity as a member of congress.

And now the former dictator’s powerful allies have been able to force the hand of the law again. What a slap in the face for the indigenous people of Guatemala.

More Than 200,000 People Murdered

Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was immersed in a bloody internal armed conflict that pitted the army against guerrilla groups. More than 200,000 men, women and children were murdered and 45,000 students, political activists and peasants were ‘disappeared’ during this 36-year-long war. Most of them were indigenous.

Now, almost 20 years after the war ended, the country is still dealing with the effects of conflict and murderous tyrants: it’s the third poorest country in Central America, with a huge number of refugees and a record-high percentage of people with chronic malnutrition.

With the historic trial of Rios Montt, the first former head of state to face genocide charges in a court within his own country, it seemed that finally something positive was happening to Guatemala. On the day the verdict was announced, indigenous campaigners and relatives of victims hugged and cried with relief in the packed courtroom.

Then came Monday’s announcement.

A Devastating Blow

Amnesty International said it was a “devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict.”

From The Guardian:

Victims of the atrocities carried out in the 1980s fear the latest decision highlights the considerable influence retained by Rios Montt, who was once feted by the US president Ronald Reagan as a “man of great personal integrity”.

Ana Caba, an ethnic Ixil who survived the civil war after fleeing her home, was stunned by the decision.

“I’m distressed,” she told Reuters. “I don’t know what’s happening. That’s how this country is. The powerful people do what they want and we poor and indigenous are devalued. We don’t get justice. Justice means nothing for us.”

The former dictator has only served a couple of nights in prison. Soon after his conviction on 10 May, the 86-year-old complained of faintness and was transferred to an army hospital for respiratory and prostate tests.

Meanwhile, his supporters, including Guatemala’s powerful business federation Cacif, lobbied successfully for the judgment to be overturned.

For a while it looked as if Rios Montt would be the exception in Latin American history, where so many dictators have evaded punishment for the horrors committed under their watch. Augusto Pinochet, whose reign of terror governed Chile in the 1970s and ’80s, was acquitted because of dementia in 2002. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a military man who ruled the Dominican Republic with brutal force for three decades, was assassinated in 1961 while still in power. Argentina’s ex-dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, responsible for more than 30,000 “disappearances” in the 1970s, died in prison just three days before Ríos Montt’s conviction was overturned.

But impunity rules, and Rios Montt, whose 17 months in power are believed to have been one of the most violent periods of the civil war in Guatemala, goes free.

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