I’ve been sitting in a courtroom in Guatemala City for the last two days watching the trial of former head of state and retired General Efrain Rios Montt and his head of military intelligence, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez. The two are on trial for genocide and war crimes, the first time a former head of state has been tried in a national court for these crimes. In addition to its importance for Guatemala’s debate over its history, and for advancing international criminal justice in national courts, the trial has been notable for its attention to gender-related crimes and for the participation of women.
The chief judge, Jasmin Barrios, has kept a tight rein on the courtroom. She heads a three-judge panel, where one of the other judges is also a woman. Although all the lawyers except one are male, the legal strategy of the prosecution – and the decision to bring the case to trial – was that of Chief Prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz, who we have blogged about here. On Friday, the expert witnesses for the prosecution included Nieves Gomez, a psychologist and expert in trauma who discussed the psycho-social effects of the army’s genocidal campaign in the northern Ixil area, and Paloma Soria, a lawyer with Women’s Link Worldwide who presented her report about the evolution of international law on gender-based crimes. On Monday, one of the last witnesses for the prosecution, Professor Liz Oglesby, testified movingly about the forced displacement and persecution of survivors, and the effects on the communities of the campaign of massacres, persecution and control in “reception centers” and “model villages” run by the military. Professor Beatriz Manz of UC Berkeley had earlier talked about her research in the area, focusing on forced displacement. Her photos of her visit to the Ixil area in 1983 are available here.
Crimes of sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery, have been front and center in this trial, which started on March 19 and will end this week. On April 3rd, the courtroom was riveted as 12 women and 1 man from the area recounted details of multiple rapes, torture, sexual slavery and being forced to watch their children being raped and killed (summaries of the testimony are available at riosmontt-trial.org.) The judge instructed the press not to transmit the testimony via internet (it is being live streamed here) or to publish the names or photos of the witnesses. Most of the women testified with their faces covered by colorful shawls; many of the indigenous women in the audience, in solidarity, covered their own faces during the testimony. This is the first time these events, and the prevalence of sexual violence as part of a strategy of destroying and controlling the population, have been openly discussed in the country. In many cases, women had not even told their own family for fear of stigma; in others, the women had been ostracized by their communities.
The trial has moved at a fast clip, in part due to security concerns. It has created a lively debate in the country’s press, including a special insert into Sunday’s newspaper claiming that the trial is a conspiracy of the Catholic church with the governments of Nordic countries and the left. This is a country where such allegations have to be taken seriously as threats: former military officers still wield a lot of power. One holds the presidency.
The trial should be over this week, with a final (oral) verdict later in the week, and a written sentence to follow. I’ll write a follow-up on the legal strategies and arguments later in the week. Stay tuned.