By Lara Kajs
It has been three years since Guatemala’s former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in the scorched earth campaigns during which at least 250,000 people were killed.
And while the verdict was nullified ten days later, and a new trial was pursued, the victims and their families continue to celebrate the victory of the verdict.
They celebrate because after 30 years of silence, they finally got their day in court. It was an opportunity to stand and face and hold accountable the person responsible about the horrific crimes to which they, their family members and neighbors had endured. Many of the witnesses were children when the crimes occurred, but they testified about watching as government soldiers butchered, raped and tortured their family members.
Witness testimony paved the way for the trial court to determine that under Rios Montt, it was state policy to embark on a genocidal campaign to exterminate the indigenous population. After reading the verdict, Rios Montt was remanded to prison by Judge Yassmin Barrios. This was not only the first time a high-ranking military official was sanctioned for grave human rights violations in Guatemala, but it was also the first time a former head of state was convicted for genocide in a domestic court of law.
So, with all the evidence and affirmations, why was the verdict overturned?
Although the short answer is that is the way things are done in Guatemala, the truth is that it was a success to just have the case heard.
Rios Montt is perhaps the most feared dictator in Guatemalan history. His victims have been empowered by the chance to tell their story and that he was found guilty. They won. And, in the modern age of technology, the entire world knows the verdict.
The Guatemala verdict has also inspired others to fight to end impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. A year ago, Guatemalans took to the streets in protest against anticorruption that led to the deposal of Otto Perez Molina and arrest in 2016 of 18 high-ranking military officers for war crimes.
As for the retrial… whether a second verdict will be declared is anyone’s guess. The first retrial ended because one of the judges was asked to be recused because she had written her thesis about genocide. Later, Rios Montt was declared to be suffering from dementia. In late 2015 the court ruled that the trial would continue behind closed doors and if found guilty, Rios Montt would not be sentenced to prison. The trial was postponed again.
Featured Image: Coffins bearing victims’ remains were brought to the church months after archaeologists found and exhumed the bodies based on witness testimony.