The Rios Montt trial on Thursday began with uncertainty generated by breaking news regarding a decision handed down by the Constitutional Court (Corte de la Constitucionalidad) the previous night. The decision related to an appeal filed by co-defendants Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez following a February 4th decision of Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, who previously handled the case. Galvez’s decision barred from evidence various defense experts, reports and documents on the ground that they were submitted late and outside of procedural rules. The unanimous Constitutional Court decision ordered Galvez to issue a new decision within 48 hours, admitting all of the forms of proof offered by the defense.
This development was covered in the morning papers in a way that raised concerns that the trial would be suspended for the next four days, if not longer, although attorneys for the prosecution indicated that the Constitutional Court had not ordered the suspension of the trial.
At the start of the day, Judge Yasmin Barrios made no mention of the Constitutional Court’s decision, continuing the trial as previously scheduled, and calling up the first witnesses of the day. Marco David Garcia King, Mishel Marie Stephenson Ojea, and Alma Nydia Vasquez Alamazan – experts from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, or FAFG) – were called to provide background regarding their expertise, to explain the chain of custody of evidence, and to ratify FAFG reports setting forth their findings and conclusions following a series of exhumations performed in the Ixil region of Guatemala in February 2007 (Xola, Sajisiban and Xeaachvitz, Sajisiban), August 2007 (Xemanzana), November 2007 (Tusiban), November 2009 (Batzmal II), and June 2010 (Pexla Grande). All three experts indicated that their analyses showed that the remains they examined bore signs of deaths caused by trauma from bullets or lacerations, and that the bodies of young children, teenagers, men, and women (some of whom were pregnant) were found among the remains of victims exhumed by the FAFG in the Department of Quiche.
There was a heated exchange between defense attorney Danilo Rodriguez and Judge Barrios as Rodriguez attempted to ask questions to expert Vazquez Aleman which were said to be relevant to the expertise of the prior experts, and not hers; attorney Rodriquez argued that all three experts from the FAFG should testify together, to facilitate their examination, but the judge repeatedly refused his motions, indicating that the criminal procedure code would not allow it.
Thursday’s court proceedings included three witnesses whose testimony was received via video-conference, with many transmission interruptions throughout the day. All three were ex-military allowed to testify from an undisclosed location due to concerns for their safety. All wore hats with brims that hid their faces; a fourth witness expected to testify via video-conference was unavailable.
Julio Velasco Raymundo, 40 years old, testified via video-conference regarding executions that he witnessed as a child at the Visan military installation, in Nebaj. Velasco lived at the installation for six or seven years, beginning when he was eight years old, after he was captured by soldiers while looking for firewood. Velasco testified that those detained at the installation were taken to soldiers from the G-2 intelligence unit, who interrogated and tortured them. Detainees were routinely killed, their bodies thrown into a hole; trash was then thrown into the hole and gasoline was added before it was set on fire to burn the remains. Velasco recounted watching an old woman being killed, after which officers cut off her head and played with it, “kicking it around as if it were a ball.”
Pedro Herrera Bernal, the second witness to testify via video-conference, spoke of being forced to participate in the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (Civil Defense Patrols or PACs) in Tzalbal. He said: “if we didn’t cut the milpa (cornfields) as ordered, we would be considered to be guerrillas… We were afraid of [the Army]… And when we were forced to patrol with the Army, we were also afraid of the guerrillas, because they also had weapons.”
When defense attorneys informed the court that technical difficulties had resulted in the defendants’ not being able to hear the testimony being given by this witness through their headphones, the testimony was temporarily halted; Judge Barrios ordered court technicians to fix the problem and attempted to proceed, while technicians worked to correct the problem. Defense attorney Cesar Calderon strongly objected, stating that it was a constitutional right of the defendants to hear the testimony of the witnesses against them, and Barrios sustained his objection, suspending the proceedings until technicians brought in laptops through which the accused could hear the testimony being given.
The final witness to appear via video-conference was Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes, a former soldier who served as a mechanic in an engineering brigade that worked in various installations in the Ixil region during 1982 and 1983. Reyes told the court that Otto Perez Molina—the official then in charge of the military installation in Salquil Grande, Nebaj, Quiche and now president of Guatemala—ordered soldiers to burn and loot villages, and later to execute people as they fled to the mountains.
There were gasps in the court room as Reyes made these accusations. Reyes also identified officials in charge at other military installations where torture and executions occurred in Nebaj (Arnoldo Otoniel Lopez, Pedro Diaz, and Luis Felipe Ruano) and Tzalbal (Mario Rene and Juan Chiroy Sal). Reyes testified: “As far as I could tell, the order was: ‘Indian seen, Indian dead’ (Indio visto, indio muerto).”
At the end of Reyes’ testimony, when defense attorney Calderon asked: “Did you kill anyone?” Judge Barrios stopped the witness from answering the question, commenting: “He is not the accused.” Calderon objected, and then asked: “Did you have an arrangement with the Public Ministry or the civil parties (querrellantes) regarding this testimony?” Reyes replied: “At no time; I have the ability to speak for myself.”
Upon completion of the video-conference testimonies, Marta Elena Casaús Arzú, an expert on racism and genocide and author of the book Linaje y Racismo en Guatemala (Lineage and Racism in Guatemala) was called to testify about the expert report she submitted in the case. Casaús presented her academic background and history of work on Guatemala, and stated, “all nine conditions that can give rise to genocide were present” in Guatemala. Casaús also indicated that in her opinion, both “genocide” (the deliberate killing of a particular ethnic group, as seen in the massacres in the Ixil region) and “ethnocide” (which she defined as the elimination of culture – language, traditional dress, and other customs) had occurred in Guatemala.
According to local press reports, following the close of court Thursday, an attorney for President Perez Molina issued a statement indicating that the “president’s rights were violated by the testimony today.”