After several weeks of fits and starts, the trial of Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez is nearing conclusion. The former head of state and chief of military intelligence, being prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity in a Guatemalan courtroom, could expect a sentence as early as today after a dramatic week. After Thursday’s hearing, all that remains of the trial is the statement of co-accused Rodriguez Sanchez. There were risks on Wednesday that the trial’s conclusion would be interrupted by legal maneuvers and the intervention of other courts, and those risks remain though they are decreasingly likely now.
The Public Ministry presented closing arguments on Wednesday afternoon, and on Thursday the court heard the remaining closing arguments from the civil parties and defense attorneys.
One of the most dramatic moments of the day came just after the civil parties concluded their closing arguments, when defense attorney Francisco Garcia Gudiel indicated that Rios Montt wanted to address the court. This was a surprising move, since Rios Montt has remained silent until now. Rios Montt, in an extended and spirited declaration, declared his innocence of all charges.
Concluding statement from defense lawyer Francisco Garcia Gudiel. Video from Skylight Pictures.
After all concluding remarks were delivered, each of the parties had an opportunity to address the court. Benjamin Geronimo of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) and Francisco Soto of the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) both addressed the court briefly, as did Rios Montt, for a second time. Judge Barrios then adjourned the trial for the day.
Closing statements from Civil Parties. Video from Skylight Pictures.
When the trial reconvenes on Friday, Rodriguez Sanchez will have an opportunity to address the court, and then the judges are expected to adjourn for deliberations. The tribunal reportedly has 24 hours to emit a verdict.
Concerns remain, however, that the process could still be derailed. On Thursday, Judge Carol Patricia Flores—the same judge whose April 18 ruling declared the annulment of the trial (before the Constitutional Court ordered the trial to re-start)—convened a 2 pm hearing of the parties in the genocide case. This generated uncertainty about whether the trial would continue. However, when defense attorneys made note of this in open court, Judge Yassmin Barrios, the trial court’s presiding judge, indicated that since the trial court was already in session, the parties would not be released to attend that hearing.
At the end of Thursday’s session, the defense lawyers noted that Judge Flores had reconvened the hearing for Friday at 8:15 am. This prompted Judge Barrios to announce that Friday’s hearing would be scheduled for 8 am rather than the usual 8:30 am. She stated emphatically that she expected all parties to be present for the proceedings, which should wrap up fairly quickly and move to the sentencing phase.
In the meantime, press reports indicate that the Bar Association’s Tribunal of Honor (Tribunal de Honor del Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala, CANG) agreed to hear a complaint against Barrios presented by Francisco Garcia Gudiel, Rios Montt’s attorney. The Tribunal of Honor had one day prior received a complaint against Garcia Gudiel filed by Ramon Cadena of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
Closing Arguments: The Civil Parties
Thursday morning’s proceedings began with attorney Edgar Perez, legal representative for AJR, making his closing argument.
“We have to thank the victims for coming forward and giving their testimony,” he started. “They have illuminated for us the dark history of Guatemala. It is not that we want to see it that way; it is that this is how it was.”
It is important that Guatemalans discuss this dark history, he said, “and especially that we do so in a court of law.” Justice consists of concrete steps to affirm the rule of law and, especially, equality before the law, where even the powerful can be investigated, prosecuted and punished for their crimes.
Perez’s presentation emphasized several dramatic and heartrending testimonies that were presented in open court throughout the genocide trial. During the trial, he said, more than a hundred witnesses told stories of horrifying violence. He also highlighted the testimony of experts from a variety of disciplines and specialties, from forensic anthropologists to specialists in racism and relations between the Guatemalan state and different ethnic groups, to experts in sexual violence in armed conflict.
He described the racism at the root of the crimes committed during the internal armed conflict as alive in Guatemala today. He noted a particular, and close, example: some working in the judicial building did not want the Ixil survivors present for the trials to have access to the bathrooms and created portable toilets outside for their use.
Perez continued, saying the prosecutors and civil parties had demonstrated that the defendants were responsible for constructing counterinsurgency policies based on the concept of the internal enemy, which in this case was defined by membership in an ethnic group, the Maya Ixil. The Army arrived in the Ixil area in 1980, and their intention to destroy the Ixil population became clearer as they expanded military control and established more military bases in the region.
The violence visited upon the Ixil population, he asserted, has been demonstrated to be not a series of “isolated incidents, or excesses, but rather as part as a systematic pattern of abuses.” He concluded: “The evidence leads us to the absolute conviction that the accused are guilty and should be found guilty.”
Next, CALDH representative Carlos Vivar delivered his concluding statement. Vivar took great pains to reiterate the total nature of counterinsurgency operations in the Ixil region—incorporating military, political and social policy—and the rigid chain of command implemented by the armed forces, which ensured that Rios Montt knew of all operations in the Ixil region. He paid special attention to Plan Operation Ixil, which identifies the entire Ixil population as guerilla sympathizers.
Illustrating the Army’s heavy-handed approach to the Maya Ixil, Vivar recalled testimony demonstrating that, in one instance, soldiers operating in the Ixil region had reported to the senior officers that the known guerrilla elements they were supposedly pursuing had left the region long before the operation commenced, further supporting what victims had been saying: the civilians themselves were the target.
“I’m going to tell you my story”: Rios Montt Addresses the Court
Immediately following Vivar’s closing arguments, defense attorney Garcia Gudiel surprised the court by announcing that his client, Rios Montt, wanted to address the court.
This provoked some controversy regarding the procedural appropriateness of such a move. (Normally the accused must either speak at an earlier stage or, for a final statement, must wait until all parties have given their closing arguments, and the defense had not yet provided their closing arguments.) Despite her evident surprise at Rios Montt’s interest in addressing the court (he has been given several prior opportunities to do so, but has refused), and over the initial objections of the prosecution, Barrios eventually allowed the former general to take the stand in order to guarantee his right of defense.
Thirty years after the atrocities in question were committed, and more than a month after the beginning of this trial, Rios Montt addressed the court for the first time. The impact on the court was palpable. A throng of photographers and videographers crowded the space in between the witness stand and the bench, prompting Judge Barrios to ask several times for some of the photographers to move and for the courtroom to maintain its silence.
Speaking for approximately 30 minutes, the former general began by saying “I am going to tell you my story.”
He spoke of the dire economic, political and military situation the country faced when he took power in a military coup in March 1982, underscoring the gradual realization that the country was in a more serious state of war than previously expected. “The country was dying,” he stated.
He spoke of the policy of Guatemaldad—“Kakchiqueles, Ixiles, Quiches, Mames, together we can make a great nation”; “together we should have the identity of being Guatemalan.” He described subversion as a question of underdevelopment, sickness, hunger and poverty.
Rios Montt fiercely contested the chain of command illustrated by the Public Ministry, however, and argued that as head of state, he was “occupied by national and international matters”; the military dealt with military matters. And each should be responsible for his own errors: “If the police are caught robbing, they do not blame the Minister of Interior.”
Further, it was the regional commanders, he said, that “were each responsible for their own territory.” Zone commanders operated with autonomy, and as president, he could not be connected with the crimes and abuses that happened within a particular region.
Rios Montt rejected documentary evidence provided by the Public Ministry, claiming instead that operational plans, such as Victoria 82 and Plan Sofia, were only general outlines, not operational plans.
At one point, Rios Montt said that he felt badly when he heard the Public Ministry accuse him of genocide. Then, he said, raising his voice: “I never authorized, I never proposed, I never ordered acts against any ethnic or religious group.”
Rios Montt concluded his statement exhorting the court to recognize that there is “no evidence of my participation,” and that “there was never an intention or purpose of destroying any ethnic group.”
He concluded declaring his innocence. “I will never accept responsibility for the charges. I was the head of state. What is the job of head of state and commander in chief? Command and control and administration of the Army. I was in charge of the national territory, not the local military zone. The local commanders had autonomy.”
A group of his supporters in the audience applauded him after he was finished.
Closing Arguments: The Defense
Following Rios Montt’s statement, just after 1 pm, Judge Barrios turned the floor over to his attorney Garcia Gudiel to give his concluding statement. Garcia Gudiel objected, noting that earlier in the day Judge Carol Patricia Flores, a judge of a first-instance court responsible for evidentiary and other pre-trial matters in connection with this case, had set a 2 pm hearing. According to press reports, the hearing was intended to address a Constitutional Court order, released on May 8, that Judge Flores address a challenge (recurso de reposición) presented by the Public Ministry during Judge Flores’ April 18 hearing.
Judge Barrios refused to adjourn however. She indicated that, since the trial court (Tribunal de Sentencia de Mayor Riesgo A) was in session, it was not obliged to suspend deliberations at the request of other tribunals. The lawyers would be permitted to release some of their team to attend the hearing if they wished, but the defendants must remain.
(On April 18, Judge Flores had ordered the annulment of proceedings, and their return to the state they were in in November 2011, a decision then rejected by Judge Barrios as illegal. After a temporary suspension, intended to resolve questions around the legality of Judge Flores’ order, the Constitutional Court repeatedly ordered Judge Flores to resolve a more limited question—the admissibility of defense evidence—and then immediately return the case file to Judge Barrios’ trial court. This allowed the trial to re-commence.)
Garcia Gudiel then asked to adjourn for lunch, but Judge Barrios declined to do so until after he had delivered his concluding remarks. This was likely in recognition that adjourning before the 2 pm hearing would provide the defense an opportunity to attend Judge Flores’ hearing, which some observers speculated could have resulted in another challenge to the continuation of the hearings, now very near completion. With some resistance, and complaints of being denied his “human right to food,” Garcia Gudiel began his presentation.
Garcia Gudiel’s presentation alternated between vitriolic ad hominem attacks on judges, prosecutors, and witnesses (including thinly veiled attacks on individuals in the audience), as well as on the United Nations and foreigners, and cutting critiques of the Public Ministry’s attempt to tie Rios Montt to genocidal acts by reconstructing the chain of command.
Garcia Gudiel was particularly critical of witnesses who provided scientific and forensic evidence, including Fredy Peccerelli, head of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation. He asserted that the forensic testimonial evidence relying on witnesses is inherently unreliable, and that scientific evidence connected to exhumations cannot identify the person responsible for the death.
He also rejected the prosecution’s attempt to show that Rios Montt had total control of the Guatemalan state and thus was implicated directly and indirectly in the crimes in question, saying “It is very sad that so many Guatemalans lost their lives in the armed conflict … but this trial attempts to hold someone accountable for the crimes of others.” As Rios Montt had said, Garcia Gudiel asserted that the head of state did not have command of operations, but that that belonged to the regional commanders. He also challenged the relevance or even existence of international law.
Garcia Gudiel stated emphatically, “the only thing [the Public Ministry] has proven is that Rios Montt never ordered, never planned, never organized, never executed, and never supervised any act that had the intention of eliminating a particular group.” He concluded by asking for “total absolution from crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.”
The court recessed for one hour following Garcia Gudiel’s remarks and returned at 4:30 pm to hear the concluding statements of Rodriguez Sanchez’ attorney Cesar Calderon. Shorter than the statements of all other presentations up to this point (Calderon took approximately 45 minutes while Lopez, Perez, Vivar and Garcia Gudiel each spoke for two hours), Calderon delivered a highly charged critique of the prosecution’s attempt to link his client to the crimes in question.
Calderon took particular exception to the inclusion of Rodriguez Sanchez in the military chain of command, retorting that attempts to do so throughout the trial constitute “partial, mutilated and selective truths.” He asserted that there was a divorce between the indictment and the evidence presented. Moreover, similar to Garcia Gudiel’s defense of Rios Montt, Calderon sought to “individualize” responsibility for the atrocities committed in the Ixil area, rejecting a theory of command responsibility and arguing that “criminal responsibility is personal and individual—each person must answer for that which they have done themselves.” To that, he said that Rodriguez Sanchez did not author a plan, or command or execute any of the crimes alleged, and thus should not be held responsible.
Final Remarks of the Parties to the Genocide Case
After all closing arguments were heard, Judge Barrios asked each of the parties to address the court. The first to come forward was Benjamin Geronimo of AJR. When asked by Judge Barrios what he’s seeking of the court, he said that he spoke in the name of the survivors, and that he himself was a survivor of a massacre of 256 members of his community that occurred during Rios Montt’s presidency.
He said the state has the obligation to guarantee and protect life, liberty, security and peace, but that the Army did the opposite. “Despite the fact that in this courtroom they say they are not responsible, that they came to the communities to bring peace, this is false; these are lies. I saw this with my own eyes. There were massacres not only in the Ixil areas, but against other Mayan communities as well.”
He lamented that they were accused of being terrorists, communists and subversives. But he affirmed that they were not looking for vengeance, but for peace with justice, respect, equality and dignity.
Geronimo asked the tribunal to deliver a guilty verdict against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez: “I ask for justice for all that we suffered… This will help the survivors feel at peace and it will generate confidence in the authorities.” He reminded the trial court that defenseless children, women and elderly people were killed. “They were not animals, dogs, beasts, or any other kind of animal. They were human beings… We ask that those responsible of crimes against humanity be held accountable.”
He also asked for moral reparations for victims, as well as protection for witnesses, lawyers, and for the Ixil and Maya population in general. He concluded his remarks, saying, “It is written that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy genocidaire to enter the kingdom of God.” (For an audio recording of Geronimo’s presentation before court, click here.) Supporters in the audience applauded after his statement.
Francisco Soto of CALDH then addressed the court, saying that the victims had waited more than 30 years for justice. The genocide case itself, he said, had been 13 years in the making and faced major obstacles at every turn. “If we forget the past we are condemned to repeat it,” he said. More than 90 survivors expressed their desire for justice and to ensure that such crimes never again recur, he stated, asking the court to find the defendants guilty of the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.
At the end of the day, Rios Montt addressed the court for a second time. This time he spoke only briefly. “You have heard the parties in this case. I believe you have the sufficient maturity, intelligence, and wisdom to make a sentence. Justice is the only thing I ask for.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Barrios initially scheduled the trial to re-start on Friday at 8:30 am for the final statement of Rodriguez Sanchez. However, after being told by the defense counsel that Judge Flores had rescheduled her hearing for 8:15 am, Judge Barrios notified all parties that the hearing would commence at 8 am and reminded them that it is in its final stage and could not be interrupted.
Friday’s hearing should bring a conclusion to the oral phase of the Rios Montt-Rodriguez Sanchez trial. A judgment should be handed down within 24 hours.
Casey Cagley, Research Associate at the Center for Global Studies at George Mason University, contributed to the research and writing of this blog.