Justice on Trial in Guatemala: The Ríos Montt Case
Justice on Trial in Guatemala: The Ríos Montt Case
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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Report / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Justice on Trial in Guatemala: The Ríos Montt Case

Ensuring a prompt and fair retrial of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt is crucial to finally bringing justice to victims of the armed conflict and to reconciling a fragile democracy with its citizens.

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Executive Summary

Within ten days, Guatemalan courts made and unmade legal history. The trial and conviction of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt on 10 May 2013 for genocide and other human rights violations was an extraordinary achievement for a justice system that must grapple simultaneously with the legacy of a vicious internal conflict and the contemporary scourges of gang violence, corruption and illegal drug trafficking. Victims had barely finished celebrating, however, when the Constitutional Court annulled the verdict in a confusing decision that raised questions of outside interference. Widespread impunity for past and present violence continues to have a corrosive effect on the country’s democracy. Failure to renew the trial for mass atrocities against Ríos Montt and pursue justice for the victims of violent crime would undermine its halting progress toward rule of law, including a strong independent judiciary.

The case against Ríos Montt and former director of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez has been passed to a new tribunal, though legal challenges make its renewal uncertain. If and when proceedings resume, the new judges will have to rehear testimony regarding massacres, rapes, torture and the forced displacement of Maya-Ixil communities in 1982 and 1983, when Ríos Montt was the de  facto head of state. Prosecutors charged both retired generals with genocide and violations of international humanitarian law, arguing that they targeted the Ixil people for extermination to deprive guerrillas of support. Though the tribunal convicted Ríos Montt, it acquitted his co-defendant. Thanks to decades of work by victims associations, human rights investigators and forensic anthropologists, prosecutors could draw on abundant oral, documentary and physical evidence. An attorney general with a background in human rights work, Claudia Paz y Paz, pushed the case forward, along with other high-profile prosecutions of both ex-government officials and organised crime figures. The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) helped engineer creation of the high-risk court that heard the case, providing specially trained and vetted judges with extra security.

The result was a largely exemplary public trial, including testimony from more than 100 victims, plus experts from both sides, and opportunities for cross-examination. Images broadcast on national television of the ex-dictator facing witnesses from one of the poorest indigenous communities vividly demonstrated the principle that all citizens are equal before the law.

But what happened in the courtroom was only part of the story. Defence attorneys filed more than a dozen petitions to delay or derail the proceedings. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has repeatedly warned that procedural actions are used in Guatemala to obstruct justice in human rights and other high-profile cases, fuelling perceptions that justice is for sale and making victims less likely to cooperate with authorities.

As the trial reached its conclusion, powerful interest groups intensified their campaigns against the process. An “anti-terrorist” foundation led by military veterans attacked human rights advocates as guerrilla collaborators in the media. The business chambers warned that the trial was fomenting polarisation and immediately after the conviction demanded that the Constitutional Court annul the verdict. President Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general himself, repeatedly stated his view that the military never committed genocide, though he promised to respect the judicial process.

When the Constitutional Court short-circuited the appeal process and threw out the verdict on 20 May in a poorly explained decision, it appeared to many that the judges were responding to political pressure. Although the court technically cancelled only part of the trial, their decision forced the original three-judge panel to withdraw, sending the case to a new tribunal.

These new judges must now be allowed to work without interference, weighing carefully both prosecution and defence arguments. Although Ríos Montt authorised summary military proceedings as dictator, he has the right to a fair trial, like all defendants under democratic governments. But the victims also have rights. The Ixil people have already waited 30 years for justice. Will a new tribunal be able to reach an evidence-based verdict that sticks? Or will the process drag out, and the trial end in confusion and controversy again, casting doubt on Guatemala’s ability to prosecute powerful defendants? Whatever the answer, it will send a powerful message about rule of law under the country’s still fragile democracy.

Guatemala will face another test of its judicial system in 2014, when it begins the process of selecting nominees for a new Supreme Court and other appeals tribunals and either chooses a new attorney general or gives Paz y Paz another term. Political authorities should act urgently to ensure that candidates are selected on merit in a transparent process that enhances the prestige and independence of judges. At stake is the ability to deal with not just past abuses, but also the crime and corruption threatening democracy today.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 23 September 2013

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