Success without Victory: Taking the Long View on Justice in Guatemala

May 22, 2013

Former military leader Efrain Rios Montt's conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity has been overturned, but there is reason to hope (Photo Credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images).
Former military leader Efrain Rios Montt’s conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity has been overturned, but there is reason to hope (Photo Credit: Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images).

Update: This post was updated on May 23, 2013 to provide more context for the significance of the overturned conviction of Rios Montt.

Amnesty International joined human rights organizations from Guatemala and all around the world in applauding former Guatemalan Dictator Rios Montt’s historic conviction on charges of genocide on May 10. The trial established his responsibility as intellectual author for the murder of 1,771 Ixil indigenous people and the forced displacement of tens of thousands from the Ixil triangle region of southern Quiché Department.

It took over thirty years to bring Rios Montt to justice. The trial faced numerous delays and obstacles, including many procedural appeals and challenges by the defense and a ten day suspension of the trial in April during which an annulment of the proceedings by a lower court was resolved.

It was remarkable that the genocide case against Rios Montt ever made it to trial. This seemed to suggest a small crack was forming in the wall of impunity that has protected most perpetrators of civil war era human rights abuses.

In 2002, in the early stages of the process, it was not clear that this courageous effort to hold Ríos Montt accountable for genocide and other crimes would ever see a courtroom. At that time, I worked as an international human rights accompanier in the Guatemalan countryside where I helped dissuade attacks against communities and protect witnesses involved in the Ríos Montt genocide case.  I lived side by side with witnesses for months and listened to their harrowing stories of survival as well as their stories of seeing and hearing their loved ones raped, tortured, and killed. It is a great tribute to the persistence of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation – the witnesses’ association – and their legal partners from the Guatemalan NGO Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) that the case moved forward.

A 1999 UN-backed truth commission found that during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-1996) some 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. After documenting more than 600 massacres, the commission concluded that genocide had occurred. The commission also found that 1982 –  the year Ríos Montt seized power – was the year in which almost half of the torture, massacres, rapes, and enforced disappearances committed during the entire conflict took place.

The weekend following the guilty verdict, Guatemala’s powerful business association, CACIF, rolled out a campaign calling for the verdict to be overturned. The US Embassy came out with a cautious but supportive statement calling for the respect of the legitimacy and integrity of the process and noting that the verdict was an opportunity for reconciliation.

On May 13, the trial court held a hearing and granted many of the reparations requests of the victims, though did not agree to the request for land restitution.

On May 20, however, following several additional defense challenges, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the verdict, sending the case back to where it stood on April 19. It is not yet clear how the Constitutional Court decision will be interpreted by lower courts.

But the fact remains that a national court in Guatemala issued a final 718 page ruling for the record in which the evidence is laid out to support Rios Montt’s guilty verdict (see for the 11 part breakdown of the ruling Spanish).

Human rights groups are now strategizing about next steps in the case. But after years of slow but determined effort to hold Rios Montt and others rights violators accountable, the sheer fact that the case went to trial, despite the abuse of procedural challenges, a verdict was reached, and a final reasoned decision made public, has made an enormous and invaluable impact in the direction of justice for the survivors.

As Amnesty International confers with local partners about next steps, stay tuned for ways to take action on the case.

This post is also available in Spanish.