Genocide trial opens in Guatemala

A Guatemalan court convened March 16 for a fourth attempt to try former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed in the bloodiest period of the nation's long civil war. Attorneys for the ex-dictator immediately filed motions to delay the trial yet again. Attorneys with the Actin Center for Human Rights (CALDH), representing victims, in turn argued that Ríos Montt and his co-defendant, former intelligence chief Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, should be tried separately. Judge Maria Eugenia Castellanos admonished attorneys on both sides over their "resorting to formalities." The co-defendants are charged with the killings of nearly 2,000 indigenous Quiché Maya peasants under a 1982-3 counter-insurgency operation in the Ixil highland region known as "Plan Sofía."

Ríos Montt was convicted at a previous trial in 2013 and given an 80-year prison sentence, but that was quickly overturned on procedural grounds and a new trial ordered. Last year the case was postponed twice more by legal appeals. The ex-general has been declared unfit for a regular trial due to dementia, so the special closed-door proceeding that just opened can formally convict, but not actually impose a sentence. Victims' lawyers want Rodríguez to be tried separately, arguing that his health situation is not as serious.

According to the United Nations, at least 245,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war. (El Periodico, Guatemala, Buenos Aires HeraldPágina12, Argentina, EFE, March 17)

Feb. 25, named as National Day of Dignity for Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict, saw a march by hundreds of genocide survivors, who demanded both that the perpetrators be brought to justice and restitution be paid to impacted families. Nobel-winning indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchú was among the organizers of the march. (El Periodico, PNUD Guatemala, Feb. 25) Menchú is also a co-defendant in the case against Ríos Montt.

  1. Another Guatemalan war criminal dies a free man

    Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala's dictator for a blood-drenched 16 months starting in March 1982, died a free man in Guatemala City on April 1 at the age of 91. He was convicted of genocide in May 2013, but the verdict was set aside by the country's Constitutional Court just 10 days later, on the grounds that he had been left without defense attorneys after his own lawyers walked out of the court in protest of the "illegal proceedings" as the decision neared. (See BBC and NYT coverage.) The massacres of some 1,770 indigenous peasants in the Ixil Triange area that he was tried for were but a fraction of those he oversaw. He was being retired in absentia at the time of his death. Ronald Reagan, remembered as the great friend of freedom in Eastern Europe, said this fascistic dictator had got a "bum rap," and pushed to have military aid restored to his regime. This indiscretion is, fortunately, recalled in the dictator's New York Times obituary.

    As we have had plenty of reason to complain before, another despot who was a darling of Washington has died a free man. As did Ríos Montt's own immediate predecessor, Romeo Lucas Garcia, who initiated the genocide…