Wergin: Supporting justice in Guatemala
Wednesday, May. 1, 2013
Wergin: Supporting justice in Guatemala BY KENDRA L. WERGIN
Two weeks ago, I watched an 86-year-old man stand trial for the targeted destruction of ethnic groups that collectively account for half of the total population of his country. Last week, I watched that quest for justice unravel in a tangled web of politics and corruption.
I am a law student at the University of Virginia and, as part of a delegation from the National Lawyers Guild, I observed the trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt. The atrocities committed against the indigenous Maya people during his 17-month presidency account for more than 81 percent of the human rights violations committed during the entire 36-year civil war. His trial is the first of its kind. No other state has tried one of its own leaders for genocide committed against its own people.
Having studied genocide extensively and worked on a genocide case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, I arrived in Guatemala City anticipating challenges mostly related to presenting the precise kind of evidence needed to prove genocidal intent. It turns out that preparing a successful prosecution case wasn’t the issue. Most objective observers would conclude from the evidence that genocide occurred. Instead, the simple yet overwhelming challenge is this: Finish the trial.
When we arrived on Sunday, April 14, we expected to hear closing arguments later that week. But a lot can happen in five days. A 20-page paid newspaper supplement claimed that genocide never occurred. The current president, Otto Pérez Molina, endorsed this view and further suggested that this trial could endanger the peace established in 1996. On Thursday, April 18, the lawyers representing Ríos Montt and his co-defendant José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez walked out of the courtroom in protest and failed to return on Friday.
Most significantly, Carol Patricia Flores, a judge reviewing in-the-moment procedural appeals, announced her decision April 18 to annul the trial proceedings going back to November 2011. The presiding trial judge, Jasmin Barrios, bravely rejected this decision in court on Friday morning, prompting extensive applause from nearly everyone in the courtroom.
Throughout the next week, everyone — Guatemalan or international — struggled to determine the current status of the case. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, its highest, has issued decisions on some but not all of the appeals it received during the week’s proceedings, and those decisions it has announced lack the clarity necessary for any pronouncements on their impact. It is, quite simply, a mess.
During my time in Guatemala, I met with brave, influential lawyers and advocates who have all risked their own safety in the interests of bringing justice to the victims, many of whom have sat patiently observing proceedings in the courtroom. These people — including Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, Judge Barrios, the leaders of the human rights organizations involved in the trial, and many of the victims themselves — all demonstrate tremendous courage in standing up to the system. Information published April 26 suggests that attacks against human rights activists have more than quadrupled in the first three months of 2013 compared to the same time last year.
When we asked how we could help, we always heard the same answer: “It means so much just that you are here.” Throughout the week of frenzied speculation about the future of the trial, our friends in Guatemala urged us to continue sharing our experience with people in the United States. They believe that international pressure can still help them to finish what has been a fair, impartial trial.
Ríos Montt’s advanced age means that time is of the essence. If the Constitutional Court decides that the trial must revert back to the beginning, Ríos Montt could well be 88 before any new trial begins. If he dies, the opportunity to establish responsibility for genocide, and possibly the opportunity to establish that genocide took place, will be lost forever.
We as a country have an obligation to support this trial however we can. The 1948 Genocide Convention requires states to bring to justice those who commit this most heinous of crimes. We are privileged to live in a country with a strong judicial system and respect for human rights; the swift response of law enforcement to the events in Boston last month is evidence of the values we hold and the capabilities we can share. The brave people standing against impunity in Guatemala have no such support. As a nation where we so often talk about freedom and justice, we owe it to our neighbors in Guatemala to help them uphold these same values. We all have an obligation — and the ability — to prevent and respond to genocide.
Kendra L. Wergin, a graduate of the Maggie Walker Governor’s School of William and Mary, is a 2014 J.D. candidate at the University of Virginia School of Law, and may be contacted at email@example.com.