Haven’t We Done Enough to Efraín Ríos Montt?

Isn’t it enough that this man has been dragged through the mud and made to sit through weeks of testimony and hear the tedious details of sadistic group killing?

Isn’t it enough that he was charged with a crime in the first place, and had to explain himself and answer to a judge in his native Guatemala, a country he once saved from reformist troublemakers?

And then of all things, to be found guilty of the crime charged! Can you imagine the humiliation?

Genocide and crimes against humanity are fairly serious charges, even when they involve peasants. And a guilty verdict is a blemish, even for Efraín Ríos Montt, who at one time bought and sold judges as Guatemala’s 1982-83 de-facto president and long-time parliament chief.

On top of it all, the trial court had the nerve the day after the verdict to go ahead and order victim reparations for the thousands apparently tortured, chopped to death, and shot in the head at close range. Talk about presumption and ingratitude.

Yes, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the verdict ten days later on technicalities and set him free, and yes, there was overwhelming evidence that Ríos Montt ordered and controlled his army’s slaughter of unarmed civilians during the country’s 1960-96 civil conflict. But can you imagine how unsettled he must have felt during those ten days, waiting for powerful allies to take action?

And now a lower court has the insensitivity to announce a retrial in 2015? Is this not going too far? What do you suppose a temporary genocide finding does to a man’s self-esteem? And we’re now going to make him sit through more unpleasantness? Can we possibly heap more coals onto his head?

Correctly, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court knew better and stepped in to vacate the verdict and sentence. It had seen that Ríos Montt never got a fair trial, that his due process had been violated, that the trial judge had interfered with Ríos Montt’s defense by ordering one of his lawyers to leave the courtroom after he would not cease with trying to invalidate the trial. Yes, the lawyer was reinstated the next day and yes, Ríos Montt was without this particular lawyer only for four hours on the trial’s first day. But the Constitutional Court, in its wisdom, saw that this counsel and these hours were crucial to Ríos Montt’s defense. Keenly, when all others missed it, the Court saw that the legal importance of those four hours outweighed the 140 hours of victim and expert witness testimony. Never mind that the trial annulment ruling isn’t the jurisdiction of a Constitutional Court. What counts is that justice was served.

And what about poor Judge Flores? Imagine not getting case files in a timely manner, and feeling over-stepped by another judge, of being squeezed out of an important trial. If that’s not reason enough to annul a genocide verdict, I don’t know what is. She was the one who heard the evidence phase of the case, who had told Ríos Montt that his acts in the mass killing were so degrading and so humiliating that there was no possible justification when she sent the case to the trial phase—and who then, in an abrupt about-face, on the last day of scheduled testimony, declared the trial suspended and ordered it back to the evidence phase, thereby vacating all testimony heard thus far. And then she was publicly mocked and said to be on the take. Have we never heard of women’s prerogative?

And isn’t it enough that Ríos Montt suffered a fainting spell during the trial and had to be hospitalized? Isn’t that retribution enough for those whose families were supposedly hacked to death?

And what about the defense team? All along they were criticized and castigated. But I’ll tell you, for not having witnesses or any evidence to refute the charges or defend their client with, the result was very satisfactory. That bit about getting yourself thrown out so that you could later claim foul when the verdict came? Just brilliant.

It’s unfortunate that people don’t see that Guatemala at the time was a country under siege from weaponless peasant Indians in remote mountains with little more than corn and grass huts, that it was a matter of national security that their villages be annihilated and wiped clean of any trace of life, that unborn fetuses be cut from their mothers’ wombs to destroy the tribal seed, that teenaged girls be repeatedly raped. But I guess people see what they want to see.

Current Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina saw it correctly all along. He knew Ríos Montt was innocent, that genocide never occurred. After all, he was there when the non-genocide happened. He is on film hovering over mutilated bodies in the hills where the butchering of women and children agitators didn’t occur.

And let us not forget the work of CACIF, Guatemala’s powerful pro-business lobby, in protecting the country’s international image. Were it not for CACIF’s ability to mobilize power against the genocide stigma, the country would have a guilty Ríos Montt and a guilty Guatemala on its hands. To its credit, it had the foresight and resourcefulness to convince those necessary that a few thousand Indians killed during a bad time for the country aren’t worth the price of labeling Guatemala a genocide state. Wisely, it saw that judicial independence is less important for the country than unhindered commerce.

Besides, who’s to say what’s genocidal killing and what’s not? Are we splitting hairs here, getting hung up on semantics? Did we make a big fuss when Pol Pot killed en masse? Or when Talaat Pasha massacred Armenians by the millions? Were they tried and retried? They too were trying to bring a unified nation, free of dissenters innately unsuitable for the envisioned state. What can be wrong in that?