Judge Again Rejects Defense Calls for Her Recusal and Suspension of the Trial; 11 More Prosecution Witnesses Heard Before Easter Recess

The sixth day of the Rios Montt genocide trial began with defense lawyers making, and the tribunal rejecting, three consecutive and related challenges to Judge Yassmin Barrios’ continued oversight of the case.

Marco Antonio Cornejo, an attorney for Rios Montt, asserted that Judge Barrios should withdraw from overseeing the genocide prosecution in light of a civil claim (claim for “civil liability of a public official,” or “responsabilidad civil contra funcionario publico“) Rios Montt filed against the judge on March 19, the first day of the trial, in connection with Barrios’ expulsion of attorney Francisco Garcia from the court.

Rios Montt had substituted Garcia for his entire legal team on the first day of the trial. Judge Barrios expelled Garcia in the late morning of the first day after Garcia made several efforts to delay the process and force the removal of Judge Barrios. After expelling Garcia, Judge Barrios had ordered Cesar Calderon, the attorney for Rios Montt’s co-accused, to temporarily represent him. However, the defense alleges that this left Rios Montt without a lawyer for the remainder of the first day of the trial.

The civil claim is now before the Civil Appellate Court (Sala Segunda de la Corte de Apelaciones del Ramo Civil y Mercantil). The claim identifies both “material and moral” damages, including the costs incurred by the former head of state for the salary of the now-expelled attorney as well as for his new attorneys. On March 25, the Civil Appellate Court notified Rios Montt that it admitted the claim for consideration but rejected the former general’s request for a provisional remedy—the proposed blocking of Judge Barrios’ salary pending a final resolution of the case.

After deliberation, the tribunal rejected Cornejo’s motion that Judge Barrios should step aside from the case in light of the newly filed civil claim. She noted the impartiality of the judges, their commitment to guarantee the due process rights of the accused, and the constitutional guarantees of judicial independence and non-interference in judicial processes. Judge Barrios further criticized the repeated efforts of the defense lawyers to avoid this prosecution and cited as the only objective for this motion the defense’s “strategy” of delaying the legal process.

After Judge Barrios held that Cornejo’s motion was without merit (sin lugar), Danilo Rodriguez, Rios Montt’s second attorney, twice more sought the judge’s removal from the case, with a motion for her recusal (una causa de recusacion), and a motion for reconsideration (una reposicion) after the recusal motion was initially denied. Rodriguez added as cause for seeking her recusal hostility (enemistad) between Barrios and the former de facto head of state. Each of Rodriguez’ motions were rejected on the same grounds as Cornejo’s, after deliberation among the judges, with Judge Barrios stating also that as impartial judges, the presiding judges will reject “threats of any kind”. Judge Barrios further insisted that neither she nor the tribunal bore any hostility towards Rios Montt, with whom she had no prior relationship and only knows as the defendant in the existing case.

After resolving the defense challenges, the court heard 11 more prosecution witnesses before breaking until Monday, April 1, for Easter recess (Semana Santa). The total number of witnesses heard in the first six days is 61.

Domingo Raymundo Raymundo was the first witness to testify that soldiers kidnapped children. He reported that soldiers kidnapped, and carried away in a helicopter, three children of his brother-in-law on July 18, 1982 in Vijolom II, in Santa Maria Nebaj, after the soldiers killed his brother-in-law, his brother-in-law’s wife, and two of their children. The military also shot Raymundo’s brother to death on the same day, dropped bombs from helicopters, burned houses and destroyed crops.

Various witnesses highlighted again the harsh conditions while displaced in the mountains. After hearing that soldiers were shooting and killing many people, Maria Cruz Raymundo and her family fled to the mountains. However, she recounted that, under dire conditions, her husband, 11-year-old daughter, and son starved to death. She gave birth to another son in the mountains.

Other witnesses described family members dying of hunger in the mountains, including Magdalena Marcos de Leon, whose one-year-old baby died in the mountains, and Francisca Cecilia Barrera, whose siblings and two nieces starved to death after the family fled her village when she was twelve years old in March 1982. Barrera also said that the family had to leave their grandmother behind for dead when they fled because she was too old to walk and soldiers had already killed her father, uncle, and many others, and burned their houses and crops.

Julian Vicente Pastor, the first witness to testify in K’iche’, said that the army continued to pursue him and his family when they were displaced in the mountains from their village in Chuatuj: “what they wanted was to kill us.” He said he did not know why, but suggested that the accused generals should know what he and his displaced and fleeing family and community members were guilty of.

In response to persistent questions from the defense about who the parties were in the war, witnesses continued to respond primarily that the military was fighting the people in their communities. Said one witness:  in the war they came to kill us though we had not done anything wrong or committed any crimes. When asked directly by the defense whether they saw guerrillas in the villages or the mountains, virtually all witnesses said no, or at least that they had no interaction.

Defense attorney Palomo repeated the question of who was in the war, and who the military was fighting against, various times to Cipriano Antonio Bernal Morales, after Bernal described the kaibiles massacre of his entire family and destruction of his village. Bernal said the military killed “humble people” who were doing nothing wrong, and that he did not know why they were attacked. Palomo restated the question, saying to Bernal that he was not answering the question:  who was the military fighting against? Bernal responded:  we were just running; I do not know why they thought that they had to fight us.

The defense several times attempted to challenge the integrity of the witnesses, and their counsel, by seeking to know whether the witness was forced or paid to testify. In each case, the witness identified that s/he was coming of her/his own free will, and without payment, in some cases mentioning that they were testifying on behalf of murdered family members. When asked, Juana Ramirez De la Cruz said she came because of how she suffered before; Clemente Vasquez Mateo said that he came to give testimony on behalf of his family and was not told by others to appear.

The defense also challenged the credibility of witness accounts by asking various witnesses whether they directly witnessed the events described or only heard reports. Various witnesses stated that they only heard reports, but often after fleeing threats or brutality, or after arriving to find the results of a massacre.

Palomo, for instance, asked this question of Cipriano Antonio Bernal Morales who, at the age of 13, barely escaped the massacre that killed his whole family and many others in the community. Judge Barrios sustained an objection that the question was repetitive.

Bernal, 44 years old, described the massacre in Xesayi, Chel, San Gaspar Chajul, on April 12, 1983, in which the kaibiles elite military unit killed his grandmother, mother, 5 and 8 year-old brothers, 6-year-old niece, sister-in-law, and the 3-day-old baby of his sister-in-law. When Bernal saw the kaibiles coming into the village, he ran to hide in the mountains; he was scared because the military had killed his father within the past year. They shot at him as he ran, but all the bullets missed. Bernal was 13 years old at the time. When he returned to his village the next day, everyone was dead, and all the houses had been burned. Only a younger brother and sister-in-law had been able to escape, his younger brother also dodging bullets as he escaped. Bernal said he knew that those soldiers were kaibiles because he had seen kaibiles before, and their dress was distinctive. He also said that during the war, the government did not treat his community as if they were human beings, even though they were the “same Guatemalan” (el mismo guatemalteco).

Clemente Vasquez Mateo, 87 years old, described the May 22, 1982 massacre in Villa Hortensia Antigua, San Juan Cotzal, Quiché, in which soldiers killed his wife and granddaughter. Vasquez was in the fields and returned to find his wife and granddaughter cut in pieces.  “I am old but it still hurts,” he said. The military returned 15 days later and killed approximately 50 people, among them Vasquez’ brother, his brother’s wife, his brother-in-law and his brother-in-law’s wife. The community buried some; others were only bones because dogs got to the bodies before the community could bury them. Vasquez also said that women were raped on the same day.

In cross-examination, Palomo asked Vasquez whether he witnessed directly the killings and the rapes; Vasquez explained that he and others fled, but could witness directly some of the killings and saw the results of the remainder. Vasquez recounted that he was told of the rapes. Palomo also asked how it was reconcilable that the military both committed the harm described and also that the commander of the civil self-defense patrols sent Vasquez to the hospital, as Vasquez had recounted; Judge Barrios did not permit the question.

Diego Santiago Cedillo tearfully recounted soldiers killing his brother, father and grandfather while the family was displaced in the mountains, and taking Santiago to the Finca La Perla military installation when he was a small child. The defense asked Santiago if he could “really remember” the abuses he described given that he was three years old at the time. An objection that this was repetitive was sustained.

The judge overruled various objections from the prosecution, permitting questions about how much money a witness sought from the government and about another claim made by a witness against a local authority for the same abuses, among others.