Update : On May 10 2013, thirty years after the original events, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. But less than two weeks later, the Constitutional Court overturned his conviction citing irregularities. The high court said the trial must begin again from where it stood on April 19. It did not say, however, whether Rios Montt or his co-defendant José Mauricio Rodriguez are guilty or innocent. Nevertheless, the ruling constitutes a devastating blow for the victims and survivors and a setback for human rights organizations.
“Efraín Ríos Montt is found guilty of genocide”, said judge Yassmín Barrios before a packed courtroom where Mayan women in colorful traditional clothes and headdresses closely followed proceedings through their headphones. The women looked at one another, but no one spoke.
“Eighty years in prison”. The silence shattered as survivors, relatives of the victims and indigenous leaders burst into applause, chanting “Justice, justice, justice!” upon hearing the verdict. A man started singing verses from a poem by Otto René Castillo: “Here nobody cried, here we just want to be human, a landscape given to the blind, a heart to the wicked man”; then others in the courtroom joined in.
Thirty years after the events, and more than ten years since Hivos’ longstanding partners Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) and the Association of Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) first supported the victims and survivors in presenting the original complaint, the justice system of Guatemala found former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity on May 10, 2013.
Over the course of the trial, 100 survivors testified during twenty-seven hearings and despite several attempts to defer the process. Ríos Montt is the first former head of state in the world to stand trial and be convicted of genocide in his or her own country.
The retired general was condemned to 50 years in prison on the genocide charge and 30 years for crimes against humanity. In reading her verdict, Judge Yassmín Barrios said: “We are completely convinced that in this case, elements demonstrating the intent to commit genocide have been proven …the defendant José Efraín Ríos Montt, the head of state, knew exactly what was happening. He did nothing to stop it.” “We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group,” she declared. “The defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide.” His director of Military Intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, was absolved of both charges.
The ex-leader denied the allegations, “I am innocent. I never had the intent to destroy any national race, religion or ethnic group”, he said on the last day of the trial.
Efraín Ríos Montt, 86, became head of state after a coup in 1982. Prosecutors say his rule (1982-1983) was the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s civil war. He was tried not only for masterminding and overseeing the massacre of 1,771 Ixil Mayans, but also for the forced displacement, acts of sexual violence and acts of torture against their ethnic group.
The military documents ‘Victoria 82’ and ‘Firmness 83’ prove that the purpose of the campaigns against Ixil villages was to destroy anyone Ríos Montt’s forces considered “enemies” or “enemy supporters” as well as to sway public opinion and control the population. The verdict also takes into account the sexual violence suffered by the women in the Ixil region, and how this crime aimed to prevent the Ixil population from reproducing.
Hivos is very proud that this unique landmark trial can be attributed to the ongoing endeavors of our partners CALDH and AJR to seek justice in Guatemala. “Hivos has supported CALDH and AJR for over a decade. Together we have stood up to the justice system in Guatemala and fought against impunity” said a representative of CALDH, during an interview.