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Guatemalan court faces calls to halt former dictator's genocide trial

As a verdict in Ríos Montt's trial nears, some – including the president – deny the alleged 1980s genocide took place and warn that a guilty verdict could throw Guatemala into chaos.

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Guatemala's ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt, attends the 19th day of his trial in the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City April 16. Montt is the first Latin American strongman to be tried on genocide charges.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

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Former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt is the first Latin American strongman to be tried on genocide charges. The landmark case has garnered worldwide attention, presented expert testimony from three continents, and already made history books.

International observers, diplomats, and indigenous survivors alike have packed the Supreme Court building every day since the trail began on March 19. A vast majority is astounded the watershed case moved forward in a nation overrun by crime and impunity.

But as the verdict nears, sectors of Guatemalan society and leading figures including President Otto Pérez Molina oppose the trial. They deny genocide took place during the country’s 36-year-civil war and warn a guilty verdict could throw the country into chaos.

Guatemala experts say this is because politicians have made little progress reconciling the country since the signing of the peace accords in 1996. They agree that political maneuverings so close to the trial’s end threatens Guatemala’s fragile democracy and could derail the Central American nation’s best shot at justice.

“This trial has the potential to expose the deep-rooted racism of Guatemalan society,” says Anita Isaacs, professor of political science at Haverford College. “It is enormously threatening to those who have historically benefited from it.”

From strongman to defendant

Mr. Ríos Montt seized power in a March 23, 1982 coup that gave way to the bloodiest period of Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war.  For years Ríos Montt avoided prosecution as a congressman, protected by a law that grants immunity to public officials.

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A judge charged the 86-year-old retired general in January 2012. The attorney general’s office alleges Ríos Montt oversaw the torture, rape, and forced disappearances of 1,771 indigenous Ixils in 15 massacres between 1982 and 1983.

The war left 200,000 people dead and more than 45,000 disappeared, mostly indigenous Mayans, according the United Nations. A postwar truth commission established that state forces committed 93 percent of the killings.

“The extermination of indigenous communities during the war was part of a racist state-sponsored strategy to eliminate or subjugate them,” said Marta Elena Casaus, an anthropologist and expert witness for the prosecution during her testimony.

From the onset the general's lawyers sought to block the trial, lodging appeals during the course of more than a year, a tactic that has continued into the trial. 

“The defense has been almost entirely procedural, inducing errors to try to make a case that the trial isn’t fair,” says Marcie Mersky, program director at the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York.

Political opposition

But the biggest blow to the court’s judicial independence came Tuesday, as a group of ex-military and peace accord negotiators ran full-page advertisements in two of the country’s national newspapers deeming the genocide trial a “juridical fabrication” and claiming genocide did not occur.

The statement says a genocide trial betrays the signing of the peace accords. A guilty verdict would polarize Guatemala and has the potential to send the country into social upheaval, they argue.

“It’s inherently racist and it betrays each one of the war’s victims,” says 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, who criticized the move because the military targeted indigenous Guatemalans during the war. “This just proves that they continue to treat us like Indians who don’t deserve dignity or the truth.”

Mike Allison, associate professor of political science at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, believes this is a pattern in Guatemala where any official that is trying to challenge impunity for past and current crimes is attacked. “These are people who profit from instability and the absence of a judicial system,” Mr. Allison says, referring to political elites.

Prior to the creation of a UN-backed anti-impunity commission and the naming of attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, only 2 percent of cases were brought before a judge. In just over two years time, Ms. Paz’s office has dramatically cut down impunity by more than 25 percent, giving the public ministry clout to face down attempts to quash prosecution efforts.

Among the signers arguing the prosecution cannot try Ríos Montt because genocide did not occur is former Vice President Eduardo Stein, who has been recognized in Washington as an advocate for judicial transparency in Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru.

Mr. Stein has also lobbied for ending a long-standing US ban on military aid imposed halfway through the civil war. The US has insisted bringing those responsible for war crimes to justice is key to ending the weapons embargo.

Stein insists coming out against the trial does not undermine the Guatemalan public ministry’s efforts to charge soldiers for human rights abuses committed during the war. “It cannot be seen as an interference. It is my duty to come out against this trial as a citizen of Guatemala,” he says in a telephone interview.

It has happened before

Politicians in post-conflict societies often try to polarize public opinion in trials because they fear the consequences, says Jo-Marie Burt, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and political science professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

“The role of law is to establish forensic truth. Interpretations can come later,” says Ms. Burt.

For Avelino Guillen Jauregui, chief prosecutor in the trial against former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, the argument is one he has heard before.

“Weeks before the verdict, we also received threats that a conviction against a former head of state would send Peru into turmoil. And, it would be all our fault,” Mr. Guillen says.

Mr. Fujimori was found guilty of human rights abuses in April 2009.

“Peruvians accepted the verdict. Today the judicial system, society, and democracy is better because of it,” Guillen says.


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