This trial takes place more than 30 years after the alleged crimes, and ten years after a victims’ group, the Justice and Reconciliation Association (AJR), brought this case to the Public Ministry, with the assistance of human rights lawyers at the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH).
The courtroom, inside the Supreme Court building in Guatemala City, was packed to overflowing.
Rios Montt’s attorneys, Danilo Rodriguez and Francisco Palomo, were not present. Francisco Garcia Gudiel introduced himself as the new counsel for the former head of state, saying he had been called by Rios Montt at 6 am, two hours before the trial was due to open, and asked to take over his representation.
The defense attorneys raised various procedural challenges seeking to delay the trial. They challenged, in particular and repeatedly, the tribunal’s ability to proceed with the trial in light of the outstanding issue of which of the defense experts and witnesses would be admissible, and the tribunal’s authority to resolve this issue itself. The tribunal determined that it would allow the defense to present their experts provisionally in light of the issue still pending before the appellate court in order to ensure due process and avoid injury to the rights of the defendants.
Video of day one of the trial from Skylight Pictures.
Rios Montt’s newly appointed counsel later sought a five-day suspension of the trial in order to prepare adequately; the tribunal rejected this challenge to the trial’s start as well.In its resolution of various procedural challenges, the three-judge panel and its chief judge, Yassmin Barrios, insisted it would not accept any delays to the process.
Judge Barrios officially opened the trial at 10.00 am.
In opening statements, the public prosecutor stated that the objective of military operational plans under Rios Montt was the destruction of the Mayan Ixil population as part of a counter-insurgency campaign that characterized civilians of this ethnic and linguistic minority as an “internal enemy”.
The prosecution alleged that Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez were responsible for the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Ixils, the displacement of 29,000 and their subjection to sub-human conditions, their torture, and cruel and inhuman treatment, and the rape and sexual abuse of women, all in violation of Guatemalan and international law.
Attorney Edgar Perez, representing the civil party, stated that the challenges by some public officials tothe notion that the state committed genocide in Guatemala underscored the significance of the trial: “lies and silence both destroy the truth” and a judicial decision grounded in evidence cannot be denied. In his opening statement, he also rejected assertions that the act of seeking justice is itself an act of terrorism or an effort to destabilize Guatemalan society.
The opening statements of the defense rested most heavily on political and sociological arguments. Cesar Calderon, on behalf of the former head of military intelligence, insisted that the trial resulted from prolonged campaigns to create the story that the state committed genocide in Guatemala; he urged justice and not “vengeance”. For his part, Garcia Gudiel asserted that the war affected all of Guatemalan society, and Guatemalans should “forgive and live in peace”. He also blamed foreign organizations opposed to democracy as motivating the trial, and asserted that the guerrillas of the past conflict are today living well and in the Public Ministry.
Calderon also stated that there was no genocide or crime against humanity, Rodriguez Sanchez did not have command responsibility for the alleged crimes, and the prosecution could not prove genocidal intent or his own actions.
Garcia Gudiel argued that Rios Montt had no direct responsibility for ordering the extermination of an ethnic minority, and that, on the contrary, the military operational plans of the period include orders to protect civilians. He also argued that Rios Montt lacked sufficient knowledge of the acts asserted, and thus does not have the appropriate authority to face prosecution for the alleged crimes; and that the acts identified lacked appropriate precision and do not rise to the level of genocide.
Both during the prosecution’s opening statements, and repeatedly during the defense’s opening statements, defense attorneys continued to challenge the legitimacy of the process and to re-introduce the procedural issues raised at the outset. Rejected again, Garcia Gudiel sought Judge Barrios’ recusal on the ground of grave personal “enmity” between the two based on experience from a prior case.
The tribunal rejected the appeal by Garcia Gudiel for Judge Barrios’ recusal, and in the end expelled him, asserting that he had exhausted the limits of permissible arguments before the court.
After vehement but ultimately unsuccessful objections by Garcia Gudiel, he left the courtroom. As heatedly, in Garcia Gudiel’s absence, Calderon contested the ejection, unwilling to be “forced” to represent Rios Montt. The judge invited any of Rios Montt’s existing attorneys to come forward.
Judge Barrios continued by reading the charges against the two accused. Each of the accused was offered an opportunity to provide a declaration before the court. Both declined, but came forward to state that they understood the charges against them.
In the afternoon of the first day of this historic trial, two witnesses described, through an interpreter, a massacre on March 25, 1982 in the village of Canaquil, in Santa Maria Nebaj, in Quiche. Each described feeling afraid when many uniformed soldiers arrived and killed approximately 35 people.
The second witness, Bernardo Bernal, was nine years old at the time of the same massacre. The soldiers killed his parents and his siblings, aged one and five or six years old. He described being shot at repeatedly as he fled, running and eventually hiding in a creek until the violence ceased, and returning to find that his entire family had been killed.
More than 130 more witnesses for the prosecution are scheduled to follow, in addition to experts.