Guatemala City, January 5, 2015
by Jackie McVicar
The retrial of former military president Efrain Rios Montt and former head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, for genocide and war crimes opened this morning briefly before being suspended. The case file hadn’t been sent to the 3 judges who would oversee the case and the suspension was to await the arrival of the documents. Two hours later, the files had arrived and the President of the High Risk Court “B”, Judge Janeth Valdez, resumed the proceedings in the tiny courtroom on the 15th floor of the Tower of Justice.
Meanwhile, members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), survivors of the armed conflict and plaintiffs in the case, and their supporters gathered, including the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) – co-plaintiffs in the case – and members of the Convergence for Human Rights and HIJOS. United outside the courtroom, in the hallway and stairwell and outside in the blowing wind, they awaited to hear how the trial would proceed. Also present were survivors from the regions most devastated during the conflict, including Chimaltenango, Rabinal, Huehuetenango and Ixcan. They came to support the Maya Ixil witnesses, survivors and families, who are charging Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez with genocide and war crimes while in power between March 1982 and August 1983. They are accused of executing of at least 1771 Maya Ixil people in an attempt to terminate the population. Thousands more were impacted.
At the first trial, between March and May 2013, Rodriguez Sanchez was absolved of the crimes. Rios Montt, on the other hand, was sentenced to 80 years of prison for genocide and war crimes on May 10. Dozens of witnesses, including survivors of massacres, sexual assault and rape, and forced displacement, forensic anthropologists who had worked on mass exhumations in the region, former military personnel, international experts on genocide and others gave their testimony. This was the first genocide verdict against a former military president in a domestic court. Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, annulled the decision days later citing discrepancies between decisions made by different judges and courts during the trial. This rolled back the hearing to April 19, 2013. Since the tribunal had already emitted a verdict and sentence, a new trial was called with new judges named to the tribunal. This proved to be a difficult task, as both the plaintiffs and defence presented recusals against judges named. Finally, the January 5, 2015 date was set with three new judges in place.
At 11am, Defence Lawyers explained that Rios Montt could not be present due to problems with his spine. The Tribunal did not accept his excuse and ordered Rios Montt to show up to the hearing by 1pm at which time special arrangements would be made for him. At the same time, the Defence asked Judge Valdez to recuse herself from hearing the case, given that in her Master’s thesis she discusses genocide and its application, therefore having already emitted an opinion on the subject. The recusal was not accepted and the trial was suspended until 1pm, to give Rios Montt and his medical team enough time to show up at the courtroom.
At 1pm, with several obstacles out of the way, the plaintiffs and defence team returned to the small courtroom and this time a blanketed Rios Montt on a gurney also entered, accompanied by his daughter Zury. The defence once again asked Judge Valdez to recuse herself from hearing the trial. This time, however, during the deliberation, the decision was made 3-2 to accept the recusal. Upon doing so, the trial against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez has been indefinitely postponed until a new judge can be appointed. Immediately, connections were also made between Judge Castellanas, one of the two judges who voted to recuse Judge Valdez, and Guatemala’s governing Partido Patriota. President Otto Perez Molina has spoken out time and again about the trial, most recently saying that the amnesty law should be applied and that when ambassadors show up at the trial they are intimidating the court. In December, US Ambassador Robinson wrote a press release supporting the retrial to which the Foundation Against Terrorism, a right wing military organization, responded that they should stay out of national affairs. Xenophobic slurs and intimidating 1980s communist-era dialect have been become common on social media and daily newspapers.
In the meantime, Rios Montt has also asked to have an antiquated amnesty law applied to his case. After seizing power in a coup d’état which saw the end of Rios Montt’s dictatorship, General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores issued Decree 8-86. This was a general amnesty to all those responsible for, or accused of, political and other crimes committed between March 23, 1982 (when Rios Montt became president through a coup and Mejia Victores was assigned as Minister of Defence) until January 14, 1986, the day which democratically-elected President Vinicio Cerezo, took power (see complete timeline here). The 1986 Amnesty Law does not have bearing as it was superseded by the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation (negotiated with the Peace Accords), which omits genocide in article 8 as an international crime for which amnesty cannot be applied. Today, not long after the an Appeals Court upheld a previous decision that the law cannot be applied in this case and instructed High Risk Court “B” to proceed.
At this point, the court has 5 days to appoint a new judge to proceed. In practice, however, this could take weeks to decide. Some believe that that the “Rios Montt Show” that began today is a just another farce in the Guatemalan judicial system in an effort to prove that there is willingness on behalf of the state to proceed with the case. Plaintiffs and their lawyers submitted a petition to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in 2013 after the verdict was annulled, citing lack of access to justice in Guatemala. Wheeling in Rios Montt shows that there is willingness to apprehend and try him, even if the trial is stalled, time and again. For his part, Rios Montt doesn’t seem to mind the humiliation and shame of being accused of genocide or the potential of the witness’ testimony to be repeated. Though four of the witnesses have died since 2013, dozens more are still ready to repeat their testimonies. Resilient, they wait for justice, knowing it will not be given to them, but part of a constant struggle.