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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




Meeting with members of the Asociación por Justicia y Reconciliación (AJR), one of the NGO “querellantes” or private prosecutors in the Genocide trial

Monday Night Meeting with the Board of the Asociación Guatemalteca de Juristas

Kendra Wergin

On Monday night we had the opportunity to meet with four wonderful lawyers from the Guatemalan chapter of the Association of American Jurists, a group very similar to the National Lawyers Guild. They were kind enough to provide us with a general explanation of the trial system in Guatemala (something we’d all found confusing) and the political and social context in which this trial is taking place. Their passion and energy never waned during our two hour meeting.

As the four lawyers introduced themselves, they made a number of comments that I found really powerful and indicative of the importance of this trial:

“This is a story of passion.”

“We are shaping history.”

“We are seeing the consequences of all of the human rights violations from the last 36 years.”

“We had to be a little bit crazy to get here.”

“It was very dangerous to raise our voices… it was intense work because we didn’t always have many lawyers willing to do this. We’ve always been trying to improve the situation for human rights in our country.”

They also made us feel really glad to be here; one said “your presence is very, very gratifying,” and that was a commonly reiterated comment. I think this speaks both to international attention generally (as a means of affirming the importance of the trial) and to attention from American lawyers – given that the United States is not free of responsibility for what happened in Guatemala. We had a lengthy discussion about the role of the U.S.; be sure to check back later this week for another blog post about this topic.

In terms of the trial itself, one lawyer initially characterized it as “of a character more political than juridical,” a sentiment reinforced by their subsequent explanations of the political and legal systems here. He went on to explain the four main power groups within politics and the law (which appear to be more interchangeable terms than any of us would like).

The consensus among this group (and I’ve heard this elsewhere as well) is that there is no doubt that Rios Montt will be convicted at this stage of the trial, but as one of the lawyers pointed out last night, once the case moves to appeal (as it inevitably will), there will be a whole new set of judges, and the strong leadership that Judge Barrios had demonstrated so far may or may not transfer to the next stage. One lawyer mentioned that the defense lawyers are excellent, and although it may not look like they’re doing significant work, they have a very well designed strategy. On the whole, the group seemed concerned about systemic obstacles that continue to impede the pursuit of justice, but we all agreed on the domestic and international significance of the fact that this trial has happened at all.

Day 1 in Guatemala (Sunday)

Carrie Anne Comer

I arrived yesterday afternoon with Christina Iturralde, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. For me, this delegation is more of a return ‘home’ than a visit. I lived in Guatemala from 2006-2012, only recently relocating to Berlin. Yesterday and this morning, while trying to recover from jetlag, I had the opportunity to speak with a few old friends and colleagues who testified as expert witnesses last week in the trial or who are working with the civil party complainant on the case.

However, the atmosphere is tense—people are reluctant to speak in detail about the case via telephone or in public. Fear of repercussions and concern about telecommunications interference or the wrong people overhearing a conversation are unfortunately part of a long tradition in Guatemala.

Human rights defenders know that their actions touch raw nerves, and their caution is understandable: today El Periodico, one of the country’s widest circulated newspapers, included a 20 page insert paid for by the Fundación Conta el Terrorismo (The Foundation against Terrorism), entitled ‘The Genocide Farse in Guatemala’ (link below).

In my seven years of living in this country, I became accustomed to the continued use of inflammatory rhetoric to intimidate and create resentment towards victims of the 36-year armed conflict and other human rights defenders. Such people are commonly accused of being communists and traitors, for example. However, today’s insert is the most alarming piece of such material I have seen. It begins with a threat:

‘We hereby warn the kingdoms of Sweden and Norway and the rest of the states that fund hate and resentment in Guatemala that the vast majority of Guatemalans are not your subjects and we shall defend our sovereignty. We are not lab rats for your social experiments and we will not allow you to impose on us your twisted models of justice. The world deserves to know the truth!’

Within the document, the authors accuse the guerrilla forces of the atrocities committed during the war. They make accusations about the involvement of Catholic priests and nuns, including Bishop Gerardi who was assassinated in 1998, and of international solidarity networks such as NISGUA, of complicity with terrorists and of propagating the ‘genocide farce’.  Internationally recognized human rights personalities such as Rigoberta Menchu (1992 Nobel Peace Prize recipient) and Frank La Rue (UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression) are also implicated.

The piece ends with the following:

‘The farce achieved its strategic objective, that Guatemala be accused and discredited for a supposed genocide that never existed.

After the rejected, and therefore illegal “Peace Accords” (rejected by the population convened for a referendum in May of 1999), the Catholic Church, committed to liberation theology, fired the last shot, with the REMHI [the Catholic Church’s truth commission report], an instrument of revenge written by a team led by Marxist priests and headed by Juan Gerardi. The rest is biased and perverse history written by those who were opponents of the State, who, lacking manliness and principles, use it as AN INSTRUMENT TO INEVITABLY LEAD US TOWARDS A NEW CONFRONTATION.’

Being distributed in the Sunday edition of a well-reputed newspaper lends this piece an air of credibility and portrays the material as factual. It will no doubt add fuel to the ongoing atmosphere of conflict and hostility, which is clearly concerning for witnesses, lawyers and other human rights defenders involved in the genocide case. Increased international attention on the situation in Guatemala for human rights defenders is especially important in light of such circumstances.

Our delegation is here to observe what we believe will be the final week of the trial, and we hope that our presence will be useful not only to accompany this important and historic process, but also to document some of the tactics being used to discredit these same proceedings. Finally, as fundamental as the genocide trial is, it is important to locate it within a context of continued human rights violations nationwide, and to support comprehensive justice efforts in Guatemala.

Link to full document: