A few minutes ago the First High Impact Trial Court read the sentence:
former head of state Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and war crimes under Guatemalan law and sentenced to 80 years in prison. As I write this the public and the judges are still in the courtroom, waiting for the police to take the 86-year old defendant off to prison. His military intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was acquitted. The defendants were on trial for crimes committed in the northern Quiche area of Guatemala against the Ixil Maya people during 1982-83, the height of Guatemala’s 30-year long armed conflict. This is the first time that a former head of state has been convicted of genocide in a national court.
It has been a long road; the complaint against Rios Montt was filed in 2001. Years of legal maneuvering, Congressional immunity, slow accretion of evidence from exhumations and documents, and a long, convoluted and still confused set of procedural motions have made this sentence even more unusual. Guatemala’s legal system rarely finds powerful defendants of any sort guilty, and lawyers are used to defending the powerful by tying the system up in knots, delaying, and creating and then exploiting appealable issues. That was what they tried here, but it didn’t work. The three-judge panel of Yassmin Barrios, Pablo Xitumul and Patricia Bustamante insisted on hearing almost 100 eyewitnesses from the Ixil maya region, and some 50 experts ranging from ballistics and exhumations to statistics, culture, forced displacement, sexual violence, mental and psychological harm, racism, and more. See earlier post here. The trial was delayed several times due to defense maneuvers, but the judges pushed ahead in the face of them. Given the fear of legal maneuvers overwhelming the trial, and given the precarious security situation for the judges, lawyers and witnesses, the judges drove the proceedings tirelessly, every day, all day.
The oral sentence (a more elaborate written sentence will be read next Friday) relied heavily on the expert testimonies to confirm that the army high command decided that all those living in the countryside in the area were the “internal enemy” and therefore had to be eliminated in order to stop them from supporting the insurgency. The judges quoted extensively from witness and expert testimony about the savagery of the army attacks, which went far beyond military necessity and reflected, they said, the underlying history of racism described by experts. The massacres involved killing, mental and physical harm, creating unbearable conditions of life, and transferring children of the group; they were the partial destruction of an ethnic group. They found that that Rios Montt, as Commander-in-Chief, had to have known about the massacres, had the ability to stop them, and did nothing. They also found him to have attacked civilian populations.
Much of the credit for today’s verdict goes to the team of lawyers who have worked on the case for years, representing the victims, and to the Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz. Ms. Paz y Paz will receive a human rights prize from the Center for Justice and Accountability at an event in San Francisco on May 14, information here. She will speak via skype to an event at the headquarters of the American Society of International Law in Washington DC, also on May 14, information here.
There is still a road ahead — the verdict will be appealed, and many side-issues are still outstanding. But for tonight, there is a celebration, I’m told, in the town center in Nebaj, heart of the ixil region.