Justice in Guatemala Deferred, Again (Audio)

Christy Thornton talks to Jo-Marie Burt about the past, present, and future of the historic Rios Montt trial.

January 15, 2015

Efraín Rios Montt (Elena Hermosa/ Creative Commons)


Christy Thornton: In Guatemala last week, the historic trial of the country’s former dictator, Efraín Rios Montt, was set to resume. Rios Montt was to be retried on charges of crimes against humanity for overseeing systematic massacres of the country’s indigenous population, carried out by Guatemalan troops and paramilitary forces in 1982 and 1983. In an earlier trial a year and a half ago, Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison, but that decision was overturned by Guatemala's Constitutional Court just 10 days later.

Joining us now to talk about what happened during last week’s trial and what it means for justice in Guatemala is Jo-Marie Burt. Dr. Burt teaches political science and is director of Latin American Studies program at George Mason University and is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). She has written widely about human rights and transitional justice, and has been an international observer to several human rights trials in the region, including the Rios Montt genocide trial. She has just returned from Guatemala and she joins us this morning. Jo-Marie, thanks for being with us.

Jo-Marie Burt: Hi, good morning Christy. It’s great to be here.

So, first, remind our listeners what happened during that first trial of Rios-Montt. You were an observer there and wrote a report for the Federation of International Human Rights on the trial and the annulment of that conviction. Remind us what happened in 2013.

Well, first of all it’s important to note that these events took place 30 years ago. The victims of the genocide in the Ixil area of Guatemala waited a very long time to have their day in court. Rios-Montt was able to avoid trial and prosecution for many years because he was a member of Congress, and he had immunity. That ended at the end of 2011, and in early 2012 he was indicted and he voluntarily appeared before the authorities and said that he would comply with a prosecution. But there were a series of delay tactics that meant that the trial didn’t actually start for more than a year later.

It started on March 19, 2013. It happened very quickly. There were many threats surrounding the entire process. And in the end, after a series of ups-and-downs in the courtroom, there was a moment in which a lower court declared that the trial had to be sent back to November 2011, prior to Rios-Montt’s indictment. And the whole thing was suspended—I was there that week. The whole thing was very dramatic, and we weren’t sure it was actually going to conclude. But then it did conclude, and Rios-Montt was found guilty, and he was sentenced to 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity and it was an amazing and historic day for Guatemala and for justice seekers I think around the world.

Right, he was the first head of state to ever have been found guilty in his own country of crimes against humanity and genocide, right?

Of genocide, of genocide, yes. So it was absolutely a historic moment. Ten days later, under intense pressure by CACIF, which is an elite business association, and by sectors of the military, the constitutional court intervened in the process in an illegal way, and overturned the verdict—well, they didn’t actually overturn the verdict. What they did was they said, from April 19 forward, the proceedings are annulled and void, which in effect vacated the sentence. They didn’t actually in their ruling even note that a sentence had been handed down.

It was a very odd decision. It was obviously the result of pressure. And we called in our report for that ruling to be overturned—which of course was ignored—because we viewed that the trial had been carried out in an impartial way, despite all the pressures that surrounded the trial. I think maybe your listeners will remember that during the trial itself, a series of circulars and paid advertisements—some unsigned—circulated in Guatemala that were very threatening, that reminded people of the death squad days, when their pictures and names would appear on lists and they would disappear. So there was a tremendous amount of pressure and there were constant attacks on people who were the key architects of the case, for example, the former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. In any case the sentence was overturned, and as a result the court that had heard the verdict—that had heard the proceedings, rather—had to recuse itself. A new tribunal was named, and they said, “Well, we’re very busy. We can’t hear this case until January 2015.”

And so, what was set to happen during this retrial last week? Obviously there has been this series of long delays that you described in bringing it but this date was set for Jan. 5. What happened when that date came?

It was actually quite confusing because there was a series of obstacles and no one was really sure if the trial was going to start again on January 5. There was concern that an amnesty law was going to be applied before that retrial was supposed to take place. There was a series of other legal obstacles that were in the way. And even the morning of Jan. 5, we were in the courtroom and the tribunal said, “Well we don’t have the case file, and if we don’t have the case file we can’t start.” And so they ordered the other court that had the case file to send it over and recess for two hours. And when we restarted at 11 a.m. they announced that the case file had been brought to them so they could start. So there was tremendous uncertainty surrounding last week’s proceedings.

And then once it started, it was like a roller coaster, because you first had the last-minute recusal placed by the defense against the president of the tribunal, Jeannette Valdez. They said that she had written her masters thesis about genocide and therefore she admitted an opinion and therefore was no longer un-impartial and should not be sitting on this case. And she went through this very long statement about why her thesis, which was written in 2004, well before she had become a judge overseeing this case, obviously. It was an academic thesis, and she was talking about the criminal, the legal content of genocide…

One would think that that would make her the most qualified person to sit on this.

Absolutely. This is one of those things that several international organizations, including WOLA, said in the statement that we put out last week that on the contrary one would think that this would be a good thing. But the fact is, Christy, that the defense lawyers don’t want another trial. They are seeking at any cost to prevent this trial from coming into play again.

And so I understand that on that day the defense basically said that Rios-Montt wouldn’t attend the trial and he was compelled to be there and they wheeled him in on this stretcher. Was that that same day?

That was that same day. So after the presiding judge explained her position that she would not recuse herself, but of course the tribunal had not yet ruled on that, so she gave her position, and she then said, in response to Rios-Montt not being in the court room that this is a violation of the law, that he was required to be in the courtroom. His lawyer had at the last minute submitted this statement that he was ill, his doctor presented a medical report and that he would not appear. She said “Well, that’s illegal. He has to come here.” So she gave him one hour to appear in court, which, honestly, was quite a shock for everyone in the room. Our jaws dropped to the floor. And an hour later he was wheeled in—you saw the photos—he was laying in a gurney, wrapped in a blanket, with his eyes covered, completely motionless. Although at the end of the day I caught a glimpse of him chatting with his co-accused, Rodriguez Sanchez, who was then his minister of defense. And his daughter was there; she’s running for president, as you may know. So that was quite a dramatic moment.

And then there was this moment in which, I believe it was Rodriguez Sanchez, requested the use of the bathroom, and there was a 45-minute delay. And people were asking, what happened in those 45 minutes? Because it seemed pretty clear that the tribunal was not going to accept the recusal, they had required Rios-Montt to be present in the room and they came back and the presiding judge said, “Well my position is this: the recusal doesn’t stand. But my two colleagues believe that it should stand.” And by a majority vote of two-to-one, this tribunal ruled to accept the recusal. And it’s very interesting also to note that the Guatemalan law has a specific time frame in which a recusal of judges in tribunals can be presented, and that time period has long passed. This tribunal was constituted in October of 2013. So there has been plenty of time for Rios-Montt’s lawyers to recuse her. They had actually presented a question of competency of the entire tribunal last year—I was at that hearing as well—and that did not stand either.

We are speaking to Jo-Marie Burt who has been observing the ongoing genocide trial of Efrain Rios-Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala. Jo-Marie, after this bit of political theater in the courtroom, what happens now? Rios-Montt is an old man and apparently in failing health. Will this trial go on? And if not, are there other options for those seeking justice in Guatemala?

We think it’s probably pretty unlikely that the trial is going to move forward. The people in Guatemala who are litigating the case, the representatives of the victims are doing everything they can. In the end they decided to appeal the recusal of the judge because it’s an illegal decision. So they filed that appeal last week. So this is going to continue to wind its way through the courts in Guatemala. There’s still the lingering threat that an amnesty could be applied. And of course there is the issue of his health. He is 80 years old, so that is also obviously an issue that may prevent this trial from starting again.

There are two things, I think. One is that it’s important to remember that the verdict that was handed down in 2013 is in fact a valid verdict. The constitutional court acted in an illegal manner. So I think it’s important to remember that in a court of law, the public ministry and the representatives of the victims demonstrated that in Guatemala there was a genocide. That there was a plan put in place at the highest rings of power, to put that genocide into place and that Rios-Montt was at the top of that. I think it’s important to remember that this happened. And the overturning of that verdict was not based on anything other than legal technicalities and actually, as I explained earlier, illegal intervention by the constitutional court. And pressure by certain interest groups. The representatives of the victims have brought this case before the Inter-American System of Human Rights, and that was not long after the verdict was overturned, so fall of 2013. As you know, the Inter-American system can be a very powerful and effective system but it’s also a slow system. So it may still be a while before the case ever makes it into the Inter-American Court. It may happen but it may not be as satisfying… I think nothing will ever be as satisfying as the March to May 2013 process that we witnessed in Guatemala itself. There’s also been the case in Spain, which is where first Rigoberta Menchu, and then other organizations, brought the case before the Spanish court under the universal jurisdiction concept, saying we can prosecute these crimes anywhere because they are crimes against humanity. And that case is still there, so there’s a chance it could move forward at some point.

So a lot to look out for moving forward as we continue to watch what is happening there in the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios-Montt in Guatemala. We have been joined by Jo-Marie Burt, professor of political science at George Mason University who just returned from Guatemala, and has been observing this whole process. Thanks so much for being with us this morning Jo-Marie.

Thank you, Christy.

Christy Thornton is a co-host on the WBAI Morning Show on 99.5FM in New York. She is earning a doctorate in Latin American history at New York University and is a board member of the North American Congress on Latin America.

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