After fourteen months of legal wrangling, the genocide trial of former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt began this week with oral presentations in court.
The trial will make history, as Guatemala becomes the first country in Latin America to try a former leader for genocide—a move that has divided the legal community.
Some classify the actions of soldiers under Ríos Montt’s command as crimes against humanity but not genocide, while others consider them genocide and still others maintain Ríos Montt’s innocence. The court’s interpretation of Ríos Montt’s orders to his soldiers during his command to consider all residents of certain areas, “guerilla sympathizers and therefore the enemy,” will likely inform the trial’s outcome.
Peru tried and sentenced Alberto Fujimori to 25 years in prison for corruption and crimes against humanity during his presidency, a charge Ríos Montt and former Chief of Army Intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez also face.
The eventual verdict will hinge on whether various incidents, including massacres in the Ixil triangle region, constituted genocide against the Maya Ixil.
President Otto Pérez Molina has maintained in public declarations that genocide never happened in Guatemala. Given that Pérez Molina was stationed as a regional commander in Ixil during Ríos Montt’s presidency, the trial could bring unwelcome attention to his wartime activities—something foreign media focused on during his election campaign.
“We respect the independence of powers, so in that sense we will respect what the judiciary is doing and all the processes that are taking place,” Pérez Molina said of the trial.
In the courtroom, Ríos Montt surprised observers by sacking his defense team— his fourth change of counsel since January 2012. When offered the chance to speak on the first day, Montt maintained his right to silence but stated that he would speak on record at a later date.
“There is no document or testimony can prove that my client was involved in the events that the Ministerio Publico (MP) accuses him of,” said defense lawyer Francisco Palomo. “What we ask for is a fair trial, away from pressures, and for it not to become a political lynching.”
It has been over a year since Ríos Montt was in court for a hearing to determine if he should stand trial for crimes against humanity and genocide. A succession of appeals stalled the process and Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez dismissed 13 motions in determining that the case should go forward, much to the consternation of the defense.
Gálvez made his ruling in February, on the anniversary of a fire at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980. The fire was deliberately started during a police raid in response to the occupation of the embassy by indigenous K’iche and Ixil farmers and their supporters, who had arrived to protest the kidnapping and murder of people in Uspantan, El Quiche. The fire caused 36 deaths.
Despite Spanish Ambassador Máximo Cajal y López’ claims that the police were breaking international law, over 50 officers stormed the building. Fire broke out in the embassy from the use of white phosphorus or Molotov cocktails.
Embassy staff and protestors were trapped on the second floor and, as police refused entry to firemen to combat the blaze, 36 Guatemalans and Spaniards, including former Vice President Eduardo Cáceres Lenhoff and activist Vicente Menchú, father of Nobel Prize winning author and politician, Rigoberta Menchú, died.
February’s ruling was a whitewash for the prosecution, with every proposed witness, expert and document admitted into the case.
Judge Jazmín Barrios has already warned that the trial will last a matter of months and, given the numerous opportunities to appeal, a conclusion this year remains in the balance.
The fact that there has been a trial is seen as a victory by some, including Reed Brody, counsel for Human Rights Watch. “That a general should face this process for abhorrent crimes 30 years after the events is testament to the courage and tenacity of the victims and humanitarian organizations in Guatemala,” said Brody.
Judge Barrios has a long history with human rights trials in Guatemala. He presided over the 1990 assassination of Myrna Mack, the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi and various massacres, such as at Dos Erres.
If convicted, Ríos Montt is likely to remain under house arrest given his background and age—he is 86. However, for a country with a relatively young population, the trial is a step toward maturity.