Archive | Inside the Courtroom RSS for this section

Monday Morning’s Trial Session & Meeting with Magistrate Judge

Here we are in front of the Palacio de Justicia yesterday morning:


Inside the Courtroom – Kendra Wergin

I spent a lot of time in court yesterday just looking around the courtroom and observing the many details of the proceedings, both on the floor with the lawyers and up in the stadium seating where members of the Ixil community, international lawyers, journalists, and other interested guatemaltecos sat observing trial. As a second year law student, I haven’t spent a ton of time in court – and most of what I have seen was at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia rather than a domestic proceeding in the United States. I’m also conversational but not fluent in Spanish, so sometimes I had to depend more on my eyes than my ears to know what was going on.

The courtroom is essentially a large auditorium. The stadium seating can probably hold about 300 people; I think there were ~150 people there yesterday. The prosecution and defense teams sit at tables on opposite ends of the floor beneath the dais where the three judges sit, and the witness sits at a small desk in the middle of the floor.

I’ll start with the judges. There are three: two women and one man. The chief judge, Jasmin Barrios, is a feisty woman who yesterday brought some color to the otherwise drab room by wearing a hot pink suit jacket. The sound quality from her microphone (combined with her rapid speech) made her a little harder for me to understand, but I always understood her attitude: she exudes professionalism and a no-nonsense approach to managing the proceedings. We all find her inspirational.

The three judges are constantly taking notes by hand, which as a former teacher I appreciate – I think it shows that they’re truly analyzing what they hear. I would be very interested to see how many pages of notes they’ve taken by the end of the day after about eight hours of trial!

The prosecution’s table is packed (I think there were eight people sitting there), and there are seven or eight plastic boxes filled with file folders on the floor behind them. That’s not something we see in American courtrooms, but I think it’s really important, particularly for the survivors in the audience, to see the amount of physical evidence supporting the case.

Across the room, there are five men at the defense table: Jose Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez sit at either end with their lawyers between them. They have no such file boxes behind their table; instead, several relatively disinterested men in the army stand against the wall holding their rifles. Here’s the defense; Rios Montt is on the far right:


There’s a wide aisle down the center of the seating area, and to a certain extent it seems that people have chosen to sit on the same side of the room as the party they support. There were definitely more people sitting on the prosecution side, including all of the members of the Ixil community. The press is also almost entirely on the right side of the room (likely for the vantage point of Rios Montt). We also sat on this side, just above the five or six rows of Ixils. Here’s a picture from a bit further back in the courtroom; you can see the three judges in the center and the prosecution’s table on the right:


Many of the Ixil people wear headphones to hear translations of the proceedings from Spanish to their native languages. There were a couple of women in charge of bringing the headphones around, but it wasn’t clear who they were (they looked like they weren’t employees of the court). Rios Montt also wears headphones during the proceedings; we think this is so that he can hear more clearly.

Meeting the Magistrate Judge – Christina Iturralde

A smaller group from the delegation had the opportunity to meet with the Honorable Jose Arturo Sierra Gonzalez, the Presiding Magistrate Judge of the Sala de Amparos (Court of Appeals).   In our short meeting, we discussed the importance of the current proceedings in Guatemala and explained to him why our delegation is here, as part of an effort to observe this historic trial.  We asked some tough questions about the trajectory of the proceedings and the current amparo that is before the Constitutional Court regarding the law of amnesty and how it applies to the defendants.  Very appropriately, the Judge had to withhold his opinions about these matters, as he may play a role in any future proceedings in this case and must remain impartial.

The Morning Trial Session – Christina Iturralde & Mariah Thompson

It is a rare opportunity to sit in a courtroom with a former military dictator, and rarer still to watch him on trial for charges of genocide.  The NLG delegation did just that on Monday, when we spent our first full day in the courtroom listening to 9 hours of testimony for the prosecution.

The morning session started off with procedural questions and stall tactics by the defense. After roll-call like introductions of the attorneys by the presiding judge, Jasmin Barrios, a fierce and powerful force clad in pink, the defense team started a series of time-suck motions that took nearly an hour. First, the Defense wanted to add a new lawyer despite the end of trial seemingly days away. The Court denied the request by a rule requiring that the defendant’s representation in the court room be limited to two attorneys, and noting that the current counsel, as well as substitute counsel, were adequate. The Defense was not persuaded and sought to switch the new attorney for one of the other substitute attorneys, a request that was also denied. It is clear to us that the Defense is gaming and is laying the groundwork for an appeal.

Once the substantive aspects of the trial finally began, we listened to expert witness testimony for the rest of the day.  All experts read from their reports, including introductions and conclusions, before being questioned by the prosecution and the defense. Two of the most remarkable expert witnesses for the day were Elizabeth Oglesby, a U.S. geographer and ethnographer, who spoke from her experience conducting numerous victim interviews throughout the eighties and nineties, and General Rodolfo Robles Espinoza, a Peruvian Military expert who explained in detail the make up and chain of command in the military.

Dr. Oglesby spoke from her vast experience in the Ixil region, where she conducted over 100 interviews with displaced Ixil. Based on her experience, she concluded that the military targeted the Ixil populations for destruction because they viewed them as ideologically impenetrable and “difficult.” Because the Ixil did not respond favorably to military psychological operations, it was easier to kill the population instead of trying to subordinate them to government interests.   In her interviews she heard a similar narrative from many survivors: military groups arrived in villages and terrorized the communities. Men and women were separated.  The women were raped by the soldiers(rape is also a weapon of genocide), and the homes and crops were burned to ashes. The soldiers slaughtered all the animals, and frequently killed most or all of the people as well, including children. Those that did survive were driven away through the use of helicopters and planes as a scare-tactic, and these groups were displaced from their homelands.

General Robles Espinoza’s testimony was explosive. Espinoza is a retired General with over 40 years of experience in the Peruvian military. When he attempted to report on fellow soldiers who were assassinating opposing forces outside of the chain of command, he was forcibly exiled from Peru and only recently received a public apology for his treatment. He is now retired from military service and has served as an expert witness in numerous trials, including the trial of Monsenor Gerardi and the trial of Myrna Mack.

As a result of his military experience as well as his involvement studying dictatorships across Latin America, he was able to explain how the military functions and how the chain of command operates.  As a result, General Espinoza was able to demonstrate that individuals in high ranking positions, such as Rios Montt, are directly responsible for the actions of the rest of the armed forces. His testimony may even implicate individuals not currently on trial, such as the sitting president of Guatemala.  Among his expert conclusions, he stated that in these operations there were clear human rights violations committed against unarmed women and children and the forcible displacement of people.  He explained that those at the highest levels of the military had a duty to stop such atrocities from occurring. Instead, they knowingly employed these tactics.

Finally, for those of you who speak Spanish, here’s a selection of yesterday’s press coverage of the trial: