Guatemala: victims challenge suspension of Ríos Montt trial

Both supporters and opponents of former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) took to the streets of Guatemala City on April 20 in response to the abrupt decision two days earlier to suspend his trial for genocide allegedly committed against indigenous people during the country's 36-year civil war. Human rights activists marched to the Constitutionality Court (CC), where the Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH) had filed a complaint on April 19 against the suspension. "We're asking for a court free of pressures, one which can say whether or not there was genocide and crimes against humanity," CALDH director Juan Fernando Soto explained. Meanwhile, friends and relatives of soldiers marched in the Lourdes neighborhood in Zona 16, putting decals on cars reading: "I love the Army of Guatemala" and "We Guatemalans don't commit genocide." (Prensa Libre, Guatemala City, April 21)

The historic trial, which also targeted Ríos Montt's former intelligence chief, Gen. José Rodríguez, was halted on April 18 shortly before the judges were to begin deliberations on a verdict. High Risk Cases Court judge Carol Patricia Flores Polanco, who was recused from the case in November 2011, entered the courtroom and announced that the Third Criminal Appeals Court had reinstated her as judge in the case, replacing current judge Yasmín Barrios. Judge Flores said the case would have to start over again and all the proceedings in the 17 months since she was recused would be annulled, including the testimony of dozens of members of the Mayan Ixil group who were victims or witnesses of military atrocities. Prosecutors, victims and human rights defenders immediately announced that they would appeal, and Judge Barrios insisted that the trial would continue. (La Jornada, Mexico, April 19, from correspondent; PL, April 20)

Many observers were skeptical about the legal rationale for the suspension. On April 16, two days before the decision, a public declaration appeared warning of the "imminent danger that political violence might reappear" because of the polarization allegedly caused by the case; it was signed by two former vice presidents, two negotiators of the 1996 peace accords that ended the civil war, a former rebel leader and various former cabinet ministers. On April 18 the United Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) issued a press release calling the declaration "an unjustifiable threat against the court"; 1992 Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum called on the government to provide security for the witnesses, prosecutors and judges. (Siglo 21, Guatemala City, April 19, from EFE)

"[B]ehind the decision stands secret intervention by Guatemala's current president and death threats delivered to judges and prosecutors by associates of Guatemala's army," US investigative journalist Allan Nairn reported on April 18, shortly after the suspension was announced. Nairn had been tentatively scheduled to appear as an expert witness on April 15; he covered the counterinsurgency in the early 1980s and interviewed current president Otto Pérez Molina, then an army major known as "Tito Arias" commanding troops in the Ixil region, at the time.

Guatemala's rulers had agreed to allow the trial to take place "because political forces were such that they had to," Nairn wrote, "and because they thought that they could get away with sacrificing Ríos Montt to save their own skins." But their thinking changed when former military engineer Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes gave testimony implicating Pérez Molina in the atrocities that occurred under the Ríos Montt dictatorship. Nairn's planned testimony was cancelled, since he too could implicate the president, he said. Then "Guatemala's army and oligarchy rallied…. They started to feel that they had no political need to sacrifice Ríos Montt… On April 16 Pérez Molina said publicly that the case was a threat to peace. On April 18, today, the Ríos Montt genocide case was suspended." (News and Comment, April 18; Democracy Now!, April 19)

The Ixil witnesses and survivors weren't about to give up in the face of the suspension, according to Claudia Samayoa, coordinator of the Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA). When the decision was announced on April 18, she told the Mexican daily La Jornada, "the indigenous people in the courtroom didn't cry. We cried; the indigenous people didn't. Later they explained to us that for them this cancellation, although illegal, is hardly even a setback. They told us: 'We've survived worse. We've finally been able to speak out, and we'll be able to overcome this setback.'" (LJ, April 19)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 21.