International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

Genocide Trial Suspended; Plaintiffs Claim Proceedings Illegal

The second genocide trial against José Efráin Ríos Montt and José Manuel Rodríguez Sánchez, which started on March 16 behind closed doors and amidst controversy, was abruptly interrupted this past Wednesday after an appeals court granted a provisional amparo (protective measure similar to a writ of habeas corpus) filed by the civil parties representing the victims in the case, the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) and the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH). The amparo filed by the plaintiffs claims that the proceedings are illegal under Guatemalan law.

Last August, after Ríos Montt was diagnosed with dementia, High Risk Tribunal B, which oversees the case, ruled that he lacked the mental capacity to face a regular trial. But, citing … Continue Reading

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Key Hearings Start in War Crimes Trial Against High-Ranking Military Officers in Guatemala

The intermediate phase of the CREOMPAZ case got underway yesterday as the first in a series of preliminary hearings was held before High Risk Tribunal A, presided over by Judge Claudette Domínguez. The proceedings will determine whether several high-ranking military officials will go to trial for war crimes committed in the 1980s, the worst years of violence in a 36-year internal conflict that claimed 200,000 lives, the majority of them from the indigenous Mayan population.

On January 6, 18 high-ranking retired military officers were arrested for war crimes, 14 in relation to the CREOMPAZ case and four in relation to the case of the 1982 forced disappearance of 14-year old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. On January 18, 11 of the 14 … Continue Reading

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Major Breakthrough for Guatemala Grave Crimes Cases: Judge Seizes Previously Denied Military Documents

Yesterday saw a stunning development in the Diario Militar (Military Diary) case. In a pre-trial hearing that was initially closed, pre-trial judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez decided to open the hearing to the public and press, and then revealed that he had in his possession new military documents pertaining to the case. Judge Gálvez explained that during a hearing held at the compound of the General Staff of the Ministry of Defense on March 4, he ordered the sequestering of the documents and that he was now making them available to the parties in the case. This is a major development, in part because since the signing of the Peace Agreements in 1996, the Guatemalan army has repeatedly denied the existence … Continue Reading

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Progress and Controversy in Guatemala Grave Crimes Cases

The January arrest of 18 former senior military officers in two high-profile cases, followed by the landmark trial and conviction in the Sepur Zarco sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery case, energized Guatemala’s transitional justice process in early 2016. Since then, the genocide retrial of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt and his former chief of intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, has gotten off to a rocky and controversial start. This report provides a brief update on the status of each of these cases.

New Genocide Trial

After several false starts, the retrial proceedings against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez in the Maya Ixil genocide case began on March 16 in special closed-door proceedings. The trial started despite controversy about the … Continue Reading

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Against the Odds: New Podcast Tells the Story of CICIG in Guatemala

In 2007, facing rampant violence and corruption, the government of Guatemala asked the United Nations to provide institutional support for its beleaguered criminal justice system.

At first, the new International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG) seemed to have little chance of success. Its team of international and local investigators and lawyers faced determined opposition from entrenched powers in Guatemala. It was hampered by misconceptions at the UN and uncertainty over its mandate. Despite some successes, periods of frustration and drift led to the resignations of its first two commissioners.

Yet CICIG has helped Guatemala score a series of dramatic victories for the rule of law, including the spectacular exposure in 2015 of the massive La Línea corruption scheme, … Continue Reading

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Ríos Montt Genocide Retrial Starts Amidst Controversy

After several false starts, the retrial proceedings against former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt and his intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez in the Maya Ixil genocide case began on March 16, 2016. The hearing last Wednesday started despite controversy about the legality of the proceedings raised by the civil parties in the case.

The case is being heard before High Risk Tribunal “B,” presided over by Judge María Elena Castellanos. Ríos Montt was not present due to health conditions, while his co-accused, Rodríguez Sánchez, was present. Victims from the Ixil region were present, as were international observers and members of the press. However, in keeping with an earlier determination that this was a special closed-door proceeding, the presiding judge ordered … Continue Reading

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Reactions to Historic Sepur Zarco Judgment

On February 26, 2016, High Risk “A” Tribunal in Guatemala convicted military officers Esteelmer Reyes Girón and Heriberto Valdez Asig of sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery against 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women, as well as several counts of homicide and enforced disappearance. This was the first time a Guatemalan court has prosecuted a case of sexual violence related to the country’s 36-year civil war. The three-judge panel sentenced Reyes Girón to 120 years in prison, while Valdez Asig was sentenced to 240 years.

Human rights activists hailed the judgment as a landmark ruling that demonstrates Guatemala’s commitment to assuring victim’s rights to truth and justice in grave crimes cases and as an important step in the global struggle to end all forms of … Continue Reading

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Military Officers Convicted in Landmark Sepur Zarco Sexual Violence Case

After four intensive weeks of public hearings, on the afternoon of February 26, 2016, the High Risk “A” Tribunal delivered a summary statement of its verdict in the landmark Sepur Zarco case. The accused were charged with sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery against 15 Maya Q’eqchi’ women, as well as several counts of homicide and enforced disappearance. The three-judge panel found defendants Lieutenant Colonel Esteelmer Reyes Girón, former commander of Sepur Zarco military base, and former military commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asig, guilty of all charges, sentencing them to 120 and 240 years in prison respectively.

“The judges of this tribunal firmly believe the testimonies of the women who were sexually violated in Sepur Zarco,” said presiding judge Yassmín Barrios, … Continue Reading

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Guatemala Court Finds Both Sepur Zarco Defendants Guilty

A court in Guatemala has found two former senior military officers guilty of crimes against humanity in a case involving murder, sexual slavery and other atrocities committed at the Sepur Zarco army base in the east of the country in 1982 and 1983.

Esteelmer Reyes Girón, the former base commander, was given prison sentences totaling 120 years. Heriberto Valdez Asij, the former regional military commissioner, was given sentences totaling 240 years. The trial before High Risk Court A in Guatemala City lasted three-and-half weeks.

In delivering the judgment to a crowded courtroom on Friday, February 26,  presiding judge Yassmin Barrios said that rape had been deliberately used at Sepur Zarco as a weapon aimed at destroying the local indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ community.

The … Continue Reading

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Defense Witnesses Testify in Sepur Zarco Trial Ahead of Closing Arguments

The fourth week of the Sepur Zarco trial started on February 22, 2016, with the presentation of several defense witnesses. In the courtroom audience this week were Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú and UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz. A group of high school students were also present during several sessions. In solidarity with the women from Sepur Zarco, each student carried a red carnation and some held hand-written signs saying “#IAmSepurZarco” (#YoSoySepurZarco). This report covers hearings that took place February 22-24.

Closing arguments and the presentations of the defendants and civil parties were presented on the afternoon of February 24, February 25, and the morning of February 26. By Guatemalan law, … Continue Reading

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