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Former Guatemalan President on Trial for Genocide Against Mayan Citizens and Others

On January 28, a Guatemalan judge announced that former President Jose Efrain Rios Montt could be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity.

On January 28, a Guatemalan judge announced that General and former President Jose Efrain Rios Montt along with his chief of intelligence Jose Rodriguez Sanchez could be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity; specifically with Rios Montt for his role in the massacre of 1,771 Mayan Ixil people during his term in office between 1982 and 1983.

The Mayan Ixil victims were among the approximately 200,000 people killed in Guatemala’s 36-year war, starting in 1960 and ending in 1996. International and national human rights organizations started presenting evidence of murder and crimes against humanity not long after 1996.

It was however in 1999 that the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission presented a report that detailed many human rights violations, alleging that both Gen. Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez-who was in charge of Operation Sofia that targeted Mayan communities suspected of guerrilla connections – were two of the people responsible for the killings and abuses.

“Within the framework of the counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, in certain regions of the country agents of the Guatemalan state committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people,” said Commission Chairman Christian Tomuschat after the report was released.

The Government’s Public Ministry asserts that Rios Montt was responsible for 15 or the 72 massacres committed in the indigenous towns of Chajul, Cotzal and Nebaj and the displacement of 29,000 people in that same region.

On Monday, January 28th Judge Miguel Angel Galvez stated that there was enough evidence to go forward with the charges against Rios Montt who had been under house arrest for the previous year. The lists of means of proof, experts and witnesses were presented three days later on Thursday, February 1 and on Monday, February 4, Judge Galvez announced which items of evidence would be accepted for the trial.

At February 4’s session, Rios Montt’s attorneys asserted that the General was not guilty of the crimes since he did not know about the massacres. Judge Galvez did not accept that argument.

“The Army cannot be divided up that way, it doesn’t function like another institution,” Judge Galvez stated. “In its hierarchy, the decisions are vertical, so that each one of the orders that are assigned to subordinates is also the responsibility of the superior officers.”

According to press reports Judge Galvez accepted a variety of materials for both sides of the case. He announced on Monday, February 4, that on the defense side there will be military reports and documents that show how other military commanders were responsible for various actions, along with testimony from officials including the former Minister of Defense Antonio Arenales Forno.

For the prosecution the judge accepted 900 items of proof including testimonies by witnesses, families of victims, reports and military plans and scientific studies that allegedly prove the culpability of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez.

Attorney Marco Antonio Cornejo, one of the three lawyers representing Rios Montt, said that the judges decisions were unfair to their client.

“They want to take us to trial in a state of defenselessness,” Cornejo asserted. “They want to bring us into the ring with our hands tied behind our backs.”

But human rights advocates and families of the victims expressed relief and surprise at the proceedings after last week’s hearings.

“It was only a little while ago that the idea of a Guatemalan general being tried for these atrocious crimes would have seemed absolutely far-fetched,” said Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch.

“That a judge would bring to justice a former head of state represents a notable accomplishment in a country where traditionally the atrocities of the past have remained with impunity,” Vivanco stated.

 “For us, after so many years, it’s a triumph,” said Marcia Mendez of the Association of Families of the Disappeared and Detained in Guatemala, “and this shows there is political will and dedication to justice.”

The Public Ministry has filed these charges on behalf of a number of organizations including the Center for Legal Action for Human Rights (CLAHR), a Guatemalan human rights agency that has been working on the case since 2001.

On their website the CLAHR asserted that then Pres. Rios Montt and other Guatemalan authorities were very much responsible for the violence committed against Mayan communities in the early 1980s.

“The armed forces of Guatemala, during those years from 1981 to 1983, were being directed by an institutional anti-communist policy that identified members of the Mayan ethnic group in the previously mentioned areas as sympathizers with the communist ideology of the insurgent forces, and because of that, they ordered their destruction. The policy of destruction of the Mayan ethnic group…was carried out by massive killings of members of that group, by massive displacement of this group under conditions aimed at eliminating their lives, and by the extreme psychological and physical injuries inflicted by the armed forces of Guatemala. The same policy of destruction required attacks against the civilian population of which the Mayan communities formed a part. These attacks included inhuman acts of murder, exterminations, extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances, torture including rape, …mutilations, offenses against personal dignity, persecutions and destruction of property.”

In a written statement, the Communications Director of the CLAHR, Fabiola Garcia, stated that they anticipated that the next phase of the trial involving oral arguments will not take place for another 4 months.