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A landmark genocide case comes to unexpected and dramatic end

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala – Former de facto President of Guatemala Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity Friday, and sentenced to 80 years in prison, drawing one of the most highly anticipated and controversial trials in a generation to a close.

Former military intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez was acquitted of both charges.

Ríos Montt and Rodríguez were charged with overseeing the murder of 1,771 Maya Ixils from Quiché department during the 17 months of Ríos Montt’s de facto government between March 1982 and August 1983. Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence each of the defendants to 75 years in prison.

The sentencing began at 4 p.m. on Friday, and presiding Judge Yazmin Barrios quickly presented the court’s unanimous analysis of the facts of the case. Under Ríos Montt, the Ixil population was “criminalized,” and as several important military documents demonstrate, there was a “systematic effort to eliminate the Maya Ixil culture.”

Recalling the powerful testimony of the women who recounted the stories of their rape at the hands of soldiers, the court again was convinced that the widespread use of rape “as a tool of psychological warfare” was systematic and was part of a strategy to eliminate the Ixil.

Witness testimony and evidence demonstrate that Ríos Montt was aware of everything that happened in the Ixil region, and did nothing to stop it.

“We are absolutely convinced,” stated Barrios, that in this case “the elements demonstrating intention to commit genocide have been proven.”

The civilian population of the Maya Ixil was subject to “massive assassinations, massacres, torture and rape, by which we are convinced of the crime of genocide,” she stated before a packed Guatemala City courtroom, with victims, family members, members of the national and international media, and Ríos Montt supporters present.

For this, Ríos Montt is sentenced to 50 years in prison for acts of genocide, plus an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.

Rodríguez, however, was acquitted of both charges, because he did not have command responsibility as chief of military intelligence. Importantly, the court also directed the Public Ministry to continue investigating other individuals implicated in related crimes.

“Guatemala wants to live in peace. … We do not want atrocities like this to be repeated,” Barrios said.

Following the reading of the sentences, Barrios instructed that as a flight risk, Ríos Montt was to be taken directly to prison. A brief pause in the rapid-fire presentation of the verdict allowed the courtroom to burst into a raucous applause and shouts of “justicia!” In the moments following the final words from the tribunal, members of the press mobbed the defense’s table, creating an uneasy sense of chaos as Judge Barrios seemed unable to regain control of the situation.

As the audience continued to wait for the special police to arrive and escort the general to prison, the gallery broke into song, mixed with hugs and tears, and cheers of “Yazmin!” The audience eventually filed into the plaza in front of the court where, despite a light rain, the mood was festive and triumphant.

Coincidentally, the region experienced a magnitude-5.1 earthquake during the sentencing, though few seemed to notice.

Judges guide historic trial to a dramatic conclusion

Following several weeks of halting progress stymied by temporary suspensions and injunctions from parallel courts (and suspended debate Tuesday, when an attorney for the defense called in sick), the trial began again in earnest on Wednesday.

The court spent the morning addressing a motion from Ríos Montt attorney Francisco García Gudiel imploring Judge Barrios to consider a motion stemming from the opening day of the trial, March 19, seeking the recusal of Barrios herself, for reasons of “enmity,” and of Judge Pablo Xitumul, for reasons of “amity.”

Then, in response to García Gudiel’s request, the prosecution presented photos and video footage from a Public Ministry building showing García Gudiel in the building, thus publicly contradicting previous claims of illness.

This behavior, according to the prosecution, was indicative of a broader effort by the defense to undermine the court’s proceedings through obstructionism and delay tactics.

After deliberation, the court denied García Gudiel’s request for a suspension and continued the hearing, a decision that sparked a heated 40-minute tirade in which the ex-dictator’s defense attorney pledged not to rest “until I see you behind bars for what you are doing,” referring to the judges.

Ríos Montt trial crowd

People in a Guatemala City courtroom celebrate after Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison on Friday. Johan Ordóñez/AFP

Seeing that neither the defense nor the prosecution had any further witnesses or evidence to present, the court proceeded to hear closing arguments. The excitement produced by this sudden progress was palpable, and within the hour, the chamber was filled to capacity as dozens of international observers and members of the Ixil community filed into the court.

Representing the Public Ministry, Orlando López argued that following the March 1982 coup d’état that brought him to power, Ríos Montt exercised absolute power over the state and Ixil region as (de facto) president of the republic, commander in chief of the Army, and minister of defense.

In his presentation, López revisited several government documents, including the Manual of Counter-subversive Warfare, which defined Mayan groups as the “internal enemy” who provided “bases of support” for insurgent combatants.

The prosecution also recalled expert testimony surrounding operational plans Victoria 82 and Plan Sofia, which, according to López, demonstrate that Ríos Montt “was involved in all that was happening in the Ixil area.”

The trial continued Thursday with the closing arguments of Edgar Pérez, a legal representative for the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a civil party to the prosecution, who recalled the heartrending testimony provided by many witnesses in the trial.

“We have to thank the victims for coming forward and giving their testimony,” said Pérez, as they “have illuminated for us the dark history of Guatemala.”

Following Pérez, Carlos Vivar, from the Human Rights Legal Action Center (CALDH), delivered his concluding remarks, focusing especially on the comprehensive nature of counterinsurgency operations under Ríos Montt. Pérez emphasized that the former general oversaw the political, economic and military elements of the counterinsurgency effort and recounted the military chain of command described by expert witnesses through which Ríos Montt could ensure that when orders were given, they were carried out.

“I am going to tell you my story”

Thursday’s hearing took a dramatic turn when lawyers for Ríos Montt asked the court to allow the former general to speak. More than 30 years after many of the events in question were committed, and over six weeks into the trial, Ríos Montt addressed the court in response to the charges against him, beginning by saying, “I am going to tell you my story.”

He then described the situation in Guatemala leading up to the coup that put him in power.

“When I took power in 1982,” he said, “the situation was complicated. … Guatemala had to rise above a very grave situation,” he continued, describing the rising inflation, tremendous poverty, and growing insurgency that threatened to make Guatemala a failed state. “I had to try to do the impossible.”

The former general then criticized the prosecution’s case connecting his command of the state with the acts committed in the Ixil region.

“I was head of state,” he said, “occupied by national and international matters.” A head of state must support his commanders,” he continued, but “each of these is responsible for his own territory.”

Manifesting the confidence and showmanship of his years at the apex of Guatemalan power politics, Ríos Montt asserted that, “I never ordered these acts against any ethnic group. There is no evidence of my participation.

“I never authorized, I never proposed, I never ordered acts against any ethnic or religious group,” he shouted. “I am innocent.”

The court then asked defense attorney García Gudiel to make concluding arguments.

As it was after 1 p.m., however, García Gudiel protested that the court should first adjourn for lunch. Judge Barrios insisted that the proceedings continue, likely in response to the fact that earlier in the day, Carol Patricia Flores, a judge from a pre-trial court in connection with the case, had set a 2 p.m. hearing to address a motion stemming from April 18 that sought to suspend the trial and move the proceedings back to where they were in November 2011.

Observers believe that had Barrios allowed a recess, the court would have been forced to remain suspended until the question was resolved and could have risked annulling all the witness testimony given up to that point.

Instead, García Gudiel agreed to give his closing arguments, despite being denied his “human right to food,” a statement that drew appalled gasps from the audience.

In his defense of Ríos Montt, García Gudiel criticized the quality of the testimony describing the acts committed in the Ixil region, arguing that much of it was based on hearsay, and did not prove his client’s involvement in any way.

He criticized witnesses who had provided scientific and forensic evidence, saying that much of the evidence connected to exhumations could not identify those responsible for the death.

Echoing the comments of Ríos Montt himself, García Gudiel elaborated that as head of state, the general did not have operational control of any regions in the country.

“It is very sad that so many Guatemalans lost their lives in the armed conflict, … but this trial attempts to hold someone accountable for the crimes of others,” he said.

García Gudiel then urged the court to acquit the former general and asked for “total absolution from crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity for my client.”

The court then took a one-hour lunch recess, and allowed the attorney for Rodríguez, César Calderón, to give his concluding statements. In a highly charged critique of the prosecution’s case against his client, Calderón asserted that there was a “divorce” between the indictment and the evidence presented. Moreover, attempts by the Public Ministry to implicate Rodríguez in the military chain of command constitute “partial, mutilated and selective truths.”

As in García Gudiel’s defense of Ríos Montt, Calderón also sought to individualize responsibility for what took place in the Ixil region, claiming that “criminal responsibility is personal and individual – each person must answer for that which they have done themselves.”

Following closing arguments, the court asked representatives from the civil parties to make closing statements. Benjamín Gerónimo, a representative for the Association for Justice and Reconciliation, a victims’ group, spoke in the name of the survivors of a massacre that killed more than 250 members of his community.

“I ask for justice for all that we suffered. … This will help the survivors feel at peace and it will generate confidence in the authorities,” he said.

Gerónimo ended his remarks poetically, saying, “It is written that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy genocidal person to enter the kingdom of God.”

The day ended with brief comments from Francisco Soto, a representative of CALDH, and a second, brief remark from Ríos Montt, who thanked the court and said simply, “justice is the only thing I ask for.”

On Friday, the court was in session just long enough to hear a brief concluding statement from Rodríguez, who affirmed his innocence, saying that as an adviser to General Ríos Montt, he was “never an accessory to genocide.”

With that, Judge Barrios concluded the trial, and directed the all parties to return at 4 p.m. for sentencing.

The trial heard from nearly 100 victims, many who testified in open court about massacres in their communities, forced displacement, the burning of their homes, the destruction of their crops and rape at the hands of soldiers.

Casey Cagley is a research associate at the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, U.S.

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