This is the first of a series of reports from the Open Society Justice Initiative about the trial in Guatemala City of former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, former military intelligence chief. The charges are “crimes against humanity and genocide.” As the OSJI states, “The charges arise from systematic massacres of the country’s indigenous population carried out by Guatemalan troops and paramilitary forces during this phase of the country’s long and brutal civil war, and the related mass forced displacement.”
This trial takes place more than 30 years after the alleged crimes, and ten years after a victims’ group, the Justice and Reconciliation Association (AJR), brought this case to the Public Ministry, with the assistance of human rights lawyers at the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH).
The courtroom, inside the Supreme Court building in Guatemala City, was packed to overflowing.
Rios Montt’s attorneys, Danilo Rodriguez and Francisco Palomo, were not present. Francisco Garcia Gudiel introduced himself as the new counsel for the former head of state, saying he had been called by Rios Montt at 6 am, two hours before the trial was due to open, and asked to take over his representation.
The defense attorneys raised various procedural challenges seeking to delay the trial. They challenged, in particular and repeatedly, the tribunal’s ability to proceed with the trial in light of the outstanding issue of which of the defense experts and witnesses would be admissible, and the tribunal’s authority to resolve this issue itself. The tribunal determined that it would allow the defense to present their experts provisionally in light of the issue still pending before the appellate court in order to ensure due process and avoid injury to the rights of the defendants.
Rios Montt’s newly appointed counsel later sought a five-day suspension of the trial in order to prepare adequately; the tribunal rejected this challenge to the trial’s start as well.In its resolution of various procedural challenges, the three-judge panel and its chief judge, JazminBarrios, insisted it would not accept any delays to the process.
Judge Barrios officially opened the trial at 10.00 am.
In opening statements, the public prosecutor stated that the objective of military operational plans under Rios Montt was the destruction of the Mayan Ixil population as part of a counter-insurgency campaign that characterized civilians of this ethnic and linguistic minority as an “internal enemy”.
The prosecution alleged that Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez were responsible for the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Ixils, the displacement of 29,000 and their subjection to sub-human conditions, their torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment, and the rape and sexual abuse of women, all in violation of Guatemalan and international law.
Attorney Edgar Perez, representing the civil party, stated that the challenges by some public officials tothe notion that the state committed genocide in Guatemala underscored the significance of the trial: “lies and silence both destroy the truth” and a judicial decision grounded in evidence cannot be denied. In his opening statement, he also rejected assertions that the act of seeking justice is itself an act of terrorism or an effort to destabilize Guatemalan society.
The opening statements of the defense rested most heavily on political and sociological arguments. Cesar Calderon, on behalf of the former head of military intelligence, insisted that the trial resulted from prolonged campaigns to create the story that the state committed genocide in Guatemala; he urged justice and not “vengeance”. For his part, Garcia Gudiel asserted that the war affected all of Guatemalan society, and Guatemalans should “forgive and live in peace”. He also blamed foreign organizations opposed to democracy as motivating the trial, and asserted that the guerrillas of the past conflict are today living well and in the Public Ministry.
Calderon also stated that there was no genocide or crime against humanity, Rodriguez Sanchez did not have command responsibility for the alleged crimes, and the prosecution could not prove genocidal intent or his own actions.
The rest of the story continues here.