In 2013, former Guatemalan dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted for crimes against humanity and genocide he committed 30 years ago against the indigenous Maya Ixil people.
The 89-year-old was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but three years after the trial, that verdict is still up in the air.
The Constitutional Court, pressured by the elite and the military who were afraid of their fate after Ríos Montt’s sentence, threw the verdict out and set a retrial. Human rights lawyers and two of the judges criticized the move as an absurd intervention.
Absurd to say the least, because, during the trial, victims described horrific crimes committed during Ríos Montt’s rule.
Men, women and children testified, describing how the women were gang-raped and how their family members were torn to pieces right in front of them. How they were forced to leave their home and escape into the jungle for years seeking safety.
In her essay for the Huffington Post, human rights activist Jo-Marie Burt said, “During Ríos Montt’s rule, the Guatemalan state’s official policy was to exterminate its indigenous population in the name of national security.” For this, Ríos Montt was to go to prison.
The verdict was a victory for the indigenous people because, as Burt says, it was “the first time a high-ranking military official was being sanctioned for grave violations of human rights in Guatemala. The first time ever a former head of state was held accountable for genocide in a domestic court of law.”
The retrial has been rescheduled many times, sometimes due to Ríos Montt’s dementia. It has also changed from a public trial to one behind doors. This, however, isn’t discouraging Guatemalans. In their eyes, the first verdict still stands, and they will continue to fight impunity.
As Juan Francisco Soto, executive director of the Center for Legal Action for Human Rights, says, “What is surprising is that we were able to bring the case to court and see it through. We proved in a court of law that there was a genocide in Guatemala.” Even though the verdict was overturned by dirty legal moves, “For us,” he says, “the sentence is still valid.”
Get more details on this genocide trial here
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