Rios Montt convicted of genocide and war crimes; 80 year sentence

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.

Gender plays key role in Guatemala trial

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   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.

Guatemala atrocities trial starts

On March 19, over 30 years after the beginning of the worst massacres, rapes, and persecution in the recent history of Guatemala, a trial beginning today in Guatemala City aims to hold a former head of state and a former head of military intelligence responsible for the crimes. The charges against former General and ex-head of state Efrain Rios Montt and former G-2 commander Jose Mauricio Rodriguez
Sanchez include genocide against the Mayan Ixil people of Guatemala’s northern mountains, as reported in Sunday’s New York Times.

This is the first time genocide, as defined in both international law and the Guatemalan penal code, has been charged against a former head of state in a national court. Additional charges include violations of international humanitarian law (characterized in Guatemala’s penal code as crimes against duties to humanity) and destruction of property. The trial will pay special attention to crimes of sexual violence; the Prosecutors’ Office, led by Chief Prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz, has commissioned experts especially on the issue.

The prosecution and victims’ groups are planning to present over 120 eyewitnesses and 60 experts on various aspects of the case. The genocide charges are based on the indiscriminate nature of the attacks against the members of this ethnic group, who had long been considered unruly and “untamable.” That reputation, combined with deep-seated racism and discrimination on the part of the officer corps and the perception that the entire area supported an anti-government insurgency, led to the razing of villages, massacres, mass rapes, targeting of old people and local cultural leaders, destruction of foodstuffs and animals, and persecution of the survivors as they fled through the jungle. Rios Montt has said that he was not aware of the crimes and had nothing to do with them.

So far, the U.S. ambassador has not said whether he will attend the trial, although there are calls from many groups in the US and Guatemala for US authorities to show their support, especially in the face of threats to the judges and lawyers. Trial observers will be present for the proceedings. Their reports can be followed daily on or on Twitter at @RiosMonttTrial.