Thursday, May 30, 2013

What to make of Guatemala and the Ríos Montt trial

Celebrating the Rios Montt genocide conviction on May 10th.
AP Photo/Moises Castilo
Guatemala has been making major news lately. On May 10th, a Guatemalan court sentenced the former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide, marking the first time a head of state was convicted of genocide by his country's own judiciary.

After weeks of courageous testimony by hundreds of Ixiles Mayans detailing in graphic terms the Guatemalan army's brutal and genocidal tactics, the verdict seemed almost too good to be true in a country where impunity for the rich and powerful usually reins. Well, indeed, it turned out to be so. 10 days later, an appeals court overturned the conviction on a 3-2 vote and hit rewind on the trial to April 19, the date of a procedural error by the court that left Montt temporarily without legal representation. This week, Guatemala's high court affirmed this ruling, sending the case into a legal limbo of sorts.

Former Guatemalan President Rios Montt
AP Photo/Moises Castilo
Sound confusing? Well it is. The more you read into this trial, the more convoluted it appears. However, at the very least, the high court didn't throw the entire case out and proclaim Ríos Montt innocent of all charges. Only a few years ago in Guatemala, that would have been entirely possible.

With the eyes of the world now on Guatemala and this trial, there are reasons to be optimistic about where it goes from here. Ríos Montt remains under house arrest pending the resumption of the trial. And the very public and very powerful testimony of the witnesses will never been annulled.

Guatemala's young democracy and sputtering but brave judiciary is indeed showing signs of life and growth, albeit very slowly. Guatemala's Attorney General (and first woman AG), Claudia Paz y Paz, deserves much of the credit. She is a one-woman show of courage, taking on powerful and shadowy military and business elites to bring the perpetrators of human right atrocities during Guatemala's Civil War to justice for their crimes. Not only did she build the case against Ríos Montt but she tried and won the first ever conviction of a civil-war era massacre last year, when a court sentenced five soldiers to 6,060 years in prison for a mass killing in 1982. Small steps, especially considering the scope of the civil war massacres and that the peace accords were signed in 1996. But significant nonetheless.

Below are some differing opinions on what this overturned conviction means for Guatemala and their fledgling judiciary. My hope is that the trial resumes swiftly and in the coming months, deja vu May 10th!
"For some that reversal struck a familiar chord. In a region where military men have often called the shots and the comfortable classes generally applauded, due process has been observed in the breach. But that's no longer the case in a hemisphere where civil society institutions and the rule of law are on the mend; nor, indeed, is that quite what happened this time in Guatemala. The decision by Guatemala's supreme court actually attests to the very 21st-century story of a tender young democracy's resilience." - Look on the Bright Side, by Mac Margolis, Foreign Policy
"Ten days later the forces of impunity struck back. On May 20, the Constitutional Court vacated the sentence, ordering the proceedings to rewind to April 19, the day a lower court judge called for the trial’s suspension due to unresolved appeals by the ex-dictator’s defense attorneys. The ruling was the latest blow in what had been a sustained dirty war waged by Ríos Montt’s supporters since his indictment in 2012 to delay, obstruct, divert and otherwise sabotage the genocide case. It was also evidence of the persistent and grievous weaknesses in Guatemala’s justice system." Guatemala's Genocide on Trial, by Kate Doyle, The Nation

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