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Did Guatemala’s President Try to Shut Down the Genocide Trial?

Guatemala President Otto Pérez Molina. (Photo: Surizar / Flickr)

The trial of former Guatemalan dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity has been mired in defense maneuvering and possible political interference from Guatemala’s current president, who may also be implicated in those crimes.

Guatemala today stands on the precipice, as the country faces a reckoning for the river of blood that flowed during a 36-year internal conflict that left 200,000 dead and 50,000 disappeared. The vast majority of those killed were unarmed civilians from the country’s indigenous Maya population, whose communities were systematically devastated. Tireless and intrepid advocates have risked their lives to unearth the truth buried with the bones of their loved ones, honor their memories and pursue justice against the perpetrators of these crimes. Few have been prosecuted, and near complete impunity has cloaked the intellectual authors of the state-sponsored terror during the internal conflict.

The climate of impunity changed in 2010, when Guatemala’s courageous Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz brought integrity to the office. Along with human rights lawyers and survivors who had been long fighting for justice, she pursued charges against former General José Efraín Ríos Montt, who presided over the bloodiest 17-month period of the conflict, and his chief of military intelligence, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. They are currently standing trial for genocide, war crimes and other crimes against humanity for the ruthless counterinsurgency strategy that unleashed a campaign of terror, in which the United States was complicit. According to the United Nations, this precedent-setting case is the first time a head of state is being tried for genocide in a national tribunal, testing principles of locally-based transitional justice.

Although the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission found that the military was responsible for 93 percent of the deaths, and that in four regions, the state committed genocide, Guatemala has yet to reckon with its past. Many of the country’s elite, including current president Otto Pérez Molina, deny that genocide occurred and denounce the trial and the societal divisions they claim the case has engendered. Instead of supporting the independence of Guatemala’s institutions, the president warned last week that peace in the country was endangered by the trial process and that violence would ensue if Rios Montt was convicted.

Given the historical impunity and the antipathy toward reconciling with the bloody past, some observers were surprised that Ríos Montt faced trial. According to journalist Allan Nairn, international and domestic pressure convinced current President Otto Pérez Molina, who had allegedly clashed with Ríos Montt before, to give his tacit approval to the prosecution, with the understanding that his name be sanitized from the proceedings. Pérez Molina had been accused by human rights advocates of responsibility for war crimes in the Ixil triangle in 1982, when he served as a field commander, and later, when he was the head of military intelligence in the 1990s, for complicity in the torture and extrajudicial execution of insurgent Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, husband of American lawyer Jennifer Harbury. Courtroom observers were stunned when a witness, testifying from an undisclosed location with a partially obscured face, directly implicated the president for the atrocities in the early 1980s. The charge was supported by Nairn’s video documentation of Pérez Molina from that era that shows “Major Tito” standing over the bodies of insurgents who were allegedly tortured and executed. In an interview with Prensa Libre in 2000, Pérez Molina admitted that he used the nom de guerre Major Tito, a statement he subsequently disavowed.

The prosecution’s case was compelling, and methodically and meticulously supported by the vivid and gut-wrenching testimony of more than 100 survivors of the scorched-earth campaign against Ixil communities, as well as forensic anthropologists, sociologists, military experts and others who painted a gruesome picture of the calculated strategy of killing of men, women, children and the elderly and destroying all they held sacred. Unable or unwilling to mount a convincing substantive rebuttal to the charges, the defense attorneys engaged in unrelenting efforts to delay, obstruct and undermine the proceedings, abusing the legal challenge of amparos (injunctions) to delegitimize the trial, and even staged a walkout from the proceedings.

As the trial neared conclusion, the defense was running out of legal maneuvers to forestall a final verdict, about which they could not have been sanguine. In a development that stunned observers, the complicated procedural history empowered Judge Carol Patricia Flores to annul the trial. Judge Flores, who was tasked with the preliminary matters, had been removed from the case in 2011 at the behest of the defense attorneys, though she was subsequently reinstated, giving her the opportunity to invalidate all the proceedings that followed her recusal. According to Nairn, who was initially scheduled to testify at the proceeding but whose appearance was canceled at the last minute, Judge Flores’ annulment ruling came because Pérez Molina decided to shut down the trial. If true, the sentiment to prevent a final accounting for the internal conflict is echoed by members of the country’s elite, who are loathe to relinquish their control over Guatemala’s institutions.

Unbowed and indomitable, presiding Judge Barrios refused to comply with what she characterized as an illegal judicial order, pledged to uphold the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, and vowed to continue the proceedings. Followed by a moving and sustained show of approval from the audience, Judge Barrios suspended the trial pending a decision from the Constitutional Court. On April 22, news outlets began reporting that the Constitutional Court had upheld the annulment, although that information was premature. The conflicting reports sowed confusion about the implications of the court’s ruling, and a number of as-yet unresolved amparos and future appeals will dictate whether the trial continues to its conclusion.

The developments sparked an intense campaign of international pressure on Guatemala to allow the trial to move forward, and two days later, on April 24, the Constitutional Court issued a ruling that may have cleared the way for the trial to proceed, pending the resolution of various evidentiary issues by Judge Flores. Observers caution, however, that given the convoluted process so far, and the vehement opposition of various sectors of society to a state-sanctioned confirmation that genocide occurred, additional impediments to a final verdict are likely. Moreover, post-trial maneuvering could last for years, and Rios Montt’s claim that he is shielded by the country’s post-conflict amnesty law for these charges remains unresolved.

In a country already beset by violence, the atmosphere of fear surrounding the trial is profound and omnipresent. A campaign of media advertisements denouncing the trial has escalated the rancor among already polarized factions of society, and threats against judges, lawyers, survivors, witnesses and community leaders have intensified. Those valiantly fighting for truth, memory and justice have vowed to persevere, but the costs of delays are immeasurable, and the manner in which the proceedings unfold will have serious ramifications for the credibility of Guatemalan democratic institutions, most particularly its judiciary. Supporting a full and fair adjudication on the merits of the trial, US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp traveled to Guatemala in late April. Especially given its historical complicity, the US should continue to signal its insistence that Guatemala reckon with its bloody past. The victims and survivors deserve nothing less than justice.

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