Go On! Free screening of ‘Granito: How to Nail a Dictator’ at Cardozo Law, March 24

Next Tuesday, March 24, from 6-8pm, the Cardozo Law Institute in Holocaust and Human Rights (CLIHHR), Latin American Law Students Association (LALSA), and Cardozo Students for Human Rights will present a free screening of the film Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, followed by a conversation with Peter Kinoy, Editorial Director of Skylight.

In 1982, Guatemala was engulfed in an armed conflict during which a genocidal “scorched earth” campaign by the military killed nearly 200,000 Maya people including 45,000 disappeared. Granito tells the extraordinary story of how a film became a “granito” – a tiny grain of sand – that helped tip the scales of justice.

The event, which is free and open to the public, takes place at Cardozo School of Law – 55 Fifth Avenue NY, NY 10003, Room 206. Light dinner will be served.

To attend, please RSVP to cardozo.clihhr@yu.edu.

Murder of Rigoberta Menchu’s Father Tried in Guatemalan Court

On January 31, 1980, police firebombed the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala, killing 37 people, among them embassy personnel and protesters. One of those killed was Vicente Menchu, a community activist and the father of Rigoberta Menchu, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples.

Thirty four years later, Rigoberta sat before a panel of judges in a Guatemalan courtroom, describing the events of that day and the effect they had on her and her family. Rigoberta Menchu - image from La PrensaRigoberta Menchu testifies - photo by Walter Pena.

Trial started yesterday in the case of the Embassy bombing. The defendant, Pedro Garcia Arredondo, is already in prison for the disappearance of a student leader. At the time Garcia Arredondo was the head of the police unit that ordered the firebombing. According to the prosecutor, he ordered that no one be allowed to escape the resulting fire.

This trial is notable for several reasons. First, because of the significance of the event, which was largely seen as the opening salvo in what became a genocidal campaign against the indigenous peoples of the country’s northwest. Vicente Menchu and his fellow protesters had occupied the Spanish Embassy, hoping to enlist the ambassador in making their concerns about army repression in the area known. The brutal response set the stage for an escalation of attacks on protesters and communities. Thus, in one sense the trial is a follow-up to last year’s genocide trial of former president Rios Montt and his intelligence chief, albeit focused on the predecessor regime of Romeo Lucas. It is one of the “emblematic cases” of the conflict.

Second, the international ramifications are significant. The Spanish ambassador had specifically called on the police to desist, and when the fire started, had escaped by jumping out the window. (The ambassador, Maximo Cajal, died earlier this year, but gave a sworn video statement to prosecutors that will be used in the trial). Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala for many years over the incident, and the Spanish ambassador is now sitting up front at the trial. A Spanish judge has been investigating this case and others since 2006.

Third, some of the evidence comes from the national police Archives, discovered in 2005 in an abandoned police station. The archives, which are in the process of being digitized by researchers, according to the prosecutors’ office contain reports of the police action, linking Garcia Arredondo and others to the decision to burn people alive.

Finally, this is the first major trial of the human rights-related crimes committed during the 1980s since the departure of the former Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz. former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz

It may be intended to show that the current attorney general, known for her close links to the ruling party, intends to continue at least some prosecutions in this area, something that is important to the country’s international image. This prosecution, in that sense, is less politically charged, because it concerns the discredited Lucas regime, and doesn’t touch still-powerful figures close to the current government. Another investigation of a figure from that era, former Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas (brother of the former president) is reportedly underway.

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 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.