On the 10th of May 2013, former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt has been convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity and subsequently sentenced to 80 years in prison. Rios Montt served in the army as a general and eventually came to power in Guatemala in 1982 through a coup d’état, after which he installed a military dictatorship under his command that lasted until 1983.
During Rios Montt’s tenure, many people were brutally killed. Although various truth commissions and human rights organisations had already extensively documented the gross human rights violations perpetrated under Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule, he could not be prosecuted since he still remained a member of congress until the beginning of 2012, which granted him immunity. Once Rios Montt left the Senate, he no longer enjoyed prosecutorial immunity and the staging of a trial against him became possible. On the 26th of January 2012, Rios Montt appeared in Court and was indicted with having perpetrated genocide and crimes against humanity. Although the trial was marred with difficulties, the conviction was hailed as a milestone, ending years of impunity. He was actually the first former head of state to be convicted for genocide by a national court in his own country. The success was however short-lived and 10 days after his sentencing on the 20th of May 2013, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned Rios Montt’s conviction and ordered that proceedings be voided back to April 19, 2013. On that day, his legal representation had left the Court out of protest against the ‘illegal’ proceeding against his client. Since Rios Montt refused to accept a public defender, the Constitutional Court decided that the trial was not carried out in conformity with the required legal standards. The new trial against Rios Montt was initially scheduled to take place later in 2014 but has now been postponed to January 2015. (For an extensive overview of the trial and comments see: www.riosmontt-trial.org)
Although the Court initially convicted him for genocide, Rios Montt has always firmly denied the crimes he is indicted with, arguing that he neither knew of, nor ordered the massacres while in power. While testifying he stated: “I am innocent. I never had the intent to destroy any national race, religion, or ethnic group.” He added: “The commanding officer in charge of the units in the El Quiche region is accountable for the actions.” Rios Montt concluded that he would “never accept responsibility for the charges” noting that his “mission as head of state was to reclaim order, because Guatemala was in ruins”.
Not only the former dictator denies the genocide, there appears to be broader denial dynamic. After the trial was annulled, impunity for the crimes looms as the Attorney General who oversaw the prosecution of the original case has been replaced and the presiding judge has been disbarred. Furthermore, on the 13th of May 2014, the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala approved a non-binding resolution which denied the existence of genocide during the civil war that started in 1960 and lasted for 36 years until 1996. The resolution was proposed by the Secretary General of Congress, who is a member of the party that Rios Montt headed. The resolution notes that it is legally impossible that genocide could have occurred, which runs counter the findings of a 1999 United Nations inquiry which concluded that genocide had taken place. Ironically, the resolution furthermore calls for reconciliation, but what is there to reconcile if the crimes of which Rios Montt and his regime were accused of did not take place.
Although the resolution is non-binding and it should not to have any effect on the trial according to those who petitioned it, victims and their supporters protest and argue that the resolution is highly problematic. They first of all argue that the annulment of the trial is a denial of justice for the crimes perpetrated, which have been acknowledged by the United Nations. Moreover, they point out that the resolution, in contradiction to what it advocates does not lead to reconciliation but to division in society, because without justice there can be no peace and reconciliation. One commentator noted that: “This shows that they aren’t really looking for reconciliation, but rather there’s an ideological point they’re trying to make.” The resolution triggered protests in front of Congress where the resolution was passed. Protesters carried photographs of those who were victimized during the conflict and carried signs stating “No to forgetting by decree.”
This blog was published earlier 2014 on the website of the Denialism and Human Rights conference that was organized at the Faculty of Law of Maastricht University.