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 klw2xy@virginia.edu.


Uncertainty Continues Over Fate of Historic Trial in Guatemala

Clayton Cheney

April 24, 2013

The trial of General Jose Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez continues to face legal obstacles in its attempt to be the first domestically held trial against a former head of state for genocide and crimes against humanity. The proceedings, which have been suspended, were nearing completion when a lower court ruling made by Judge Carol Patricia Flores attempted to annul all previous trial proceedings. Numerous legal petitions and amparos (similar to an injunction or appeal) have been filed by both the prosecution and defense, seven of which are still pending before Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court.

A ruling made by the Constitutional Court this week raising grave concerns is the referral of the case back to Judge Flores. There is a growing belief that this will result in Judge Flores returning the proceedings back to the pre-trial phase, in effect requiring that all evidence in the trial be reheard. This would cause more than just a significant delay in a trial crucial to ending impunity in Guatemala, it would also be damaging to the current state of peace, justice and reconciliation in Guatemala. The trial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez is essential for Guatemala to move past the conflict and strain between its citizens, which has engulfed the country during and after its thirty-six year civil war. A failure of the trial, especially through tactics of delay or on grounds of procedural technicalities, would fuel the tension between opposing groups of Guatemalans, a tension which is already at a boiling point.   

Having spent the previous week observing these trial proceedings in Guatemala City, I was struck by the social context and the always present feeling political and human tension. This tension was magnified through media publications that seemed to either be a boisterous arm on the payroll of political organizations or merely content with breading social divergence through misleading and at times false headlines.  

Unfortunately, obtaining access to reliable and accurate information on the current state of the proceedings continues to be problematic. Conflicting information provided by the various courts involved and interested parties makes any prediction of what the future holds for this trial mere speculation. News organizations are providing no alleviation of the confusion. It seems as though information is released by a news organization, only to be later replaced by conflicting information on the same issue. This is fueling the climate of uncertainty surrounding the trial, especially in Guatemala City, where accurate information is vital during a trial consistently influenced by public opinion.

As the proceedings against Rios Montt and Sanchez sit in limbo, it becomes increasingly important that international attention is focused on ensuring the completion of this historic trial. International attention must be a driving force in guaranteeing that Guatemala adheres to its obligations as a democratic state, including providing equal protection of the law and ensuring that justice is carried out without discrimination.

In addition to the legal hurdles discussed above, there also appears to be a silent threat to the integrity of the trial against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez. Throughout the NLG delegation visit to Guatemala, numerous parties with an interest in the matter expressed concern over the applicability of amnesty to any sentence handed down against the former dictator and his military subordinate. If the legal, personal and public struggles endured by the victims, civil society and government figures are in the end made futile by a ruling of amnesty for Rios Montt or Sanchez, that would be the most disappointing and destructive result of all. I urge the international community to draw attention to this monumental trial and signify the extreme importance of accountability and equality of justice in the protection of fundamental human rights.