Court returns after Holy Week recess; witnesses testify to torture and massacres, and lawyers arrange for forthcoming testimony of sexual assault survivors

The seventh day of the Rios Montt genocide trial began on Monday, April 1, following an extended court recess for Semana Santa (Holy Week). The proceedings continued at a breakneck speed, with a total of 12 fact witnesses testifying.

Towards the end of the day, attorneys for the prosecution indicated that on Tuesday, April 2, they plan to call ten witnesses to testify regarding sexual assaults suffered during Guatemalan military operations between 1982 and 1983. The prosecution asked the court to receive their testimonies “behind closed doors,” as allowed for under Section 356 of the Guatemala Code of Criminal Procedure to protect the modesty and the identities of those testifying.  The court considered the rights of the victims and the public, and indicated that it would not close the hearings but would arrange for the faces of those testifying to be covered, and asked that the press keep confidential the identities of the witnesses.

Witnesses on Monday again described massacres, inhumane conditions in the mountains on fleeing, and in at least one instance, torture experienced directly by the witness during interrogations, all in connection to operations by the Guatemalan military during Rios Montt’s rule in 1982 and 1983.

Tiburcio Utuy described vivid accounts of torture. He fled to the mountains following three massacres in his community by the military: in January 1983, where the military destroyed the homes of five families; in February 1983, where the military surrounded four families, shot and killed a woman as she tried to flee, and cut an unborn child out of the uterus of its pregnant mother; and another eight or nine days later, involving 15 victims, including a “commissioner” and his family who decided to stay after the earlier attacks, believing they would be safe because of their military connections.

Utuy and others fled to the mountains, pursued by soldiers in army helicopters and airplanes which shot at them and dropped bombs, and with many dying of sickness and malnutrition. Utuy himself was captured by the military, tortured and interrogated, asked to identify guerrillas and where they were based. He said he was strung up and beaten, and repeatedly lost consciousness. As he indicated that he was cut, he lifted his shirt up so that the judges could see the scars that remain on his body, thirty years later. He recounted that he was later taken by helicopter to Nebaj, and paraded in front of members of the community, who were asked to identify him.

Various witnesses from Sajsiban, in Santa Maria Nebaj, Quiche, described military operations there. Margarita Raymundo Melendez testified about attacks by the Guatemalan military in Sajsiban on November 15, 1982. She said that when the military arrived, they burned their houses and their food. She fled for the mountains with her 8-month-old infant and a toddler. She recounted that her infant died when Raymundo covered its mouth, out of fear that the army would find her with the infant’s wailing. Her husband and others stayed behind and were later found dead. Raymundo Melendez pulled her shawl up over her head as she testified, causing one of the attorneys to ask if she was afraid; she responded that she did it because she felt bad – that her head and heart hurt – but that she was not afraid.

Juan Cruz testified that soldiers attacked the civilian population of Canton Xelocwitz, in Sajsiban, buring their houses, killing their animals, and destroying their stores of food. Family members died of malnutrition in the mountains, including his two-year-old daughter, his father, a niece and another relative. Gaspar Gonzalez Sanchez fled in October 1982 due to soldiers’ destruction of Sajsiban; the difficult conditions in the mountains resulted in the death of his daughter, less than a year old. Gonzalez indicated that bombings occurred on a nearly daily basis during this period.

Francisco Matom testified that on September 20, 1982, in Tu B’aj Mam, Sajsiban, the military shot to death his two brothers and pregnant sister. Matom’s young daughter subsequently died during a military bombing raid after the surviving family fled to the mountains. Ana de Leon Lopez testified to the forced displacement of her family and other inhabitants of Sajsiban and surrounding villages by the Guatemalan military and civil self-defense patrols. She said that the military killed her brother, her uncle, and three  nieces. Three of her children died of hunger (“from pains in their stomachs”) after they fled; they were 4, 7 and 9 years old

Nicolas Bernal testified that his wife reported that soldiers entered their village of Viucalvitz, in the municipality of Santa Maria de Nebaj, Quiche, on May 25, 1983, and killed their son and seven others from their village, burned their houses, destroyed their crops, and killed their animals, causing them to flee their village for the mountains.

Jacinto Marcos Raymundo described military operations on April 20 and November 5, 1982 in Vibajila, in the village of Acul, Santa Maria de Nebaj, Quiche. In the first attack, the military surrounded the village and ordered inhabitants to go to the church, while they burned houses, killed many people and caused him to flee to the mountains with his wife. In a subsequent military operation, soldiers shot and killed his father-in-law and others.

Juana Chavez also testified about the difficult conditions that resulted when her community was forced to flee their homes due to military bombing and ground attacks conducted by the Guatemalan military in August 1983 in Visumal, near Vicalama, killing her husband in a bombing attack after the military burned their home, destroyed their crops, and killed their animals.

Tomas Raymundo Perez, of Salquil Grande, Santa Maria de Nebaj, Quiche, tearfully testified about a military operation on December 10, 1982 involving some 500 soldiers who massacred at least a dozen people from his community, including his mother-in-law and four cousins. After the military burned their houses and killed or stole their animals, he fled to the mountains with his family, where his father later died of hunger.  Raymundo also described the army dropping bombs on them in the mountains.

Another witness described the difficult conditions in the mountains of Santa Maria de Nebaj, Quiche, which resulted in the deaths of many of those who fled their villages.  She said that parasites and malnutrition were common, and that there were no medical services – only herbal remedies, such as epazote.

Throughout the day, defense attorneys repeatedly questioned the witnesses regarding the languages spoken by the soldiers and members of the civil self-defense patrols that operated in their areas. They also asked whether guerrillas were active in their areas, or if the witnesses knew who was fighting in the war.  Witnesses repeatedly indicated that they were often asked about the guerrillas by the army, but that they only knew that it was the army who did the killing in their area, and destroyed their villages.

Many of the witnesses expressed difficulty hearing in the courtroom and were given headphones, but the noise quality remained difficult for the witnesses, as well as other trial participants and observers.


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