On Thursday, January 26, retired Guatemalan general Efraín Ríos Montt stands before a judge in a Guatemalan court to hear the charges brought against him for genocide and crimes against humanity. The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) commends Guatemala for taking these important first steps to bring justice to bear after decades of impunity.
“This is an historic undertaking for the Guatemalan justice system,” said David Tolbert, president of ICTJ. “The crime of genocide is rarely tried in a national court; not only are the investigations very complex, but the political will is often lacking to bring such serious charges against the powerful.”
Judge Carol Patricia Flores will decide whether the evidence presented by the prosecutors is sufficient to order Ríos Montt to stand trial for his alleged responsibilities for those crimes while he was de facto head of state and commander-in-chief of the army from March 1982 to August 1983.
“ICTJ and many other international justice organizations will be following the case as it moves forward in the coming months,” Tolbert said. “With this case Guatemala has the opportunity to be an example to the world of how a national justice system can meet its obligations to investigate, try, and punish actions that offend all of humanity.”
While the Guatemalan army committed hundreds of massacres during the thirty years of internal armed conflict that ended in 1996, the charges in this case focus on the well documented, large-scale crimes committed against indigenous people in one region of the country in 1982–1983. Two other former military officials are already being held on similar charges; Ríos Montt had evaded the charges against him until last week when he lost immunity after stepping down from his position as a member of congress.
Victims’ organizations and non-governmental legal advocates have worked for the past 15 years to develop the case and keep the hope of justice alive, bringing their first complaints against Ríos Montt and others to the Guatemalan courts in 1999. ICTJ welcomes the decision of the attorney general, the prosecutors who have built the case, and the court that has decided to hear it, to promote accountability and work to turn this hope into reality.
MATTHEW BISHOP - REPORTING ON THE PRESS RELEASE
The atrocities in Guatemala have gone largely uncovered by our media and unaddressed by our government. This trial is a step towards justice, but the road ahead is long and winding. If you are interested in learning more on the subject, the following materials were suggested to me in a conversation with ICTJ Director Marcie Mersky:
The Quiet Genocide, edited by Etelle Higonnet
The Center for Justice and Accountability's website
(Spanish-language) CALDH website (CALDH is taping the proceedings of the trial reported above)