Day 19 of Rios Montt Trial: Defense Continues to Avoid Presentation of Proposed Expert Witnesses as Trial Comes to a Close; Closing Arguments Planned

Wednesday, April 17, was a chaotic and tense day in the courtroom. Judge Yassmin Barrios began by observing that once again only two defense witnesses were present to testify before the tribunal, while some ten witnesses remained to be heard. The judge ordered Ríos Montt’s counsel, Marco Antonio Cornejo, to leave the room and personally call each of them on the phone to advise them that they were legally required to attend. Before permitting Cornejo to exit, she called the first witness present, Gustavo Porras, into the chamber and asked him to take his place in the witness chair facing the tribunal. Porras and the entire courtroom of several hundred spectators then waited in silence until the lawyer returned some 15 minutes later.

Gustavo Porras Castejón is a sociologist and political analyst who joined the revolutionary movement in the 1960s and in 1980 became a member of the EGP. In the 1990s he joined the government of Álvaro Arzú, serving as the president’s private secretary, a member of the peace negotiations and coordinator of the Peace Commissio (Comisión de Paz, or COPAZ).

Defense Witness Harris Howell Whitbeck. Video from Skylight Pictures.

From the start of his testimony, Porras verged on being a hostile witness. Although he was proposed by the defense to speak to the armed conflict during 1982-83, including the State’s alleged policy of the destruction of the Ixil, the displacement of the Ixil, and the forced sterilization of Ixil women (according to what the judge read from court documents), he told the court that he had no firsthand knowledge of those facts. Cornejo’s general questions about the guerrillas in the 1980s were stymied by a volley of objections, until he managed to ask whether Porras was aware of the existence of an insurgency in the Ixil region during the relevant period. Porras answered, “I didn’t participate as a guerrilla in that area during those dates. What I know are accounts told to me by different people, mostly from the EGP, but I didn’t personally witness the events and can’t answer.”

The questions from Cornejo continued to stray outside the bounds of the defense team’s stated purpose for calling Porras, prompting more objections from the prosecution and repeated admonishments from Judge Barrios. The judge read aloud the defense lawyers’ original submission on Porras three times, and then ordered the court document to be placed in front of the attorneys on both sides so they could read it for themselves. Everyone waited while they read. Cornejo protested that he was being treated differently from the prosecution (“you never sustain my objections and you always sustain theirs”) and abandoned his questioning.

Defense attorney César Calderón had slightly more success when he asked Porras if he had ever published anything about the issue of genocide in Guatemala. “It was an extremely bloody conflict,” Porras said. “I don’t deny that there atrocities were committed in the Ixil area. But in my opinion the reasons for the army attack against the population were not ethnic but politico-military. The Ixiles were considered a fundamental base for the EGP – and invariably armies will isolate the guerrillas from the population.”

[Porras was one of a group of prominent Guatemalans who signed a paid advertisement published in the press on Tuesday rejecting genocide and warning that a genocide conviction would dangerously polarize Guatemalan society.]

Minutes later, Edgar Pérez addressed Porras for the prosecution: “You say the conflict was bloody, but the Army’s attack against the Ixil was not for ethnic reasons. How is this opinion consistent with what you wrote in your book?” Pérez read from Porras’s Las Huellas de Guatemala: “‘What [the EGP’s] strategies never predicted or analyzed was the reaction of the adversary, his capacity to exploit their weaknesses, even at the cost of a slaughter of genocidal proportions.’ Did you write this book?”

Before Porras could answer, the defense objected and Pérez declared “No further questions.”

The next witness to appear for the defense was Harris Howell Whitbeck. Whitbeck is a Guatemalan businessman and politician who was a key architect of the civic action programs Ríos Montt developed to counter the insurgency. He said that he was a colleague and friend of the accused, and recounted in some detail how he helped design and launch the government’s “Beans and Bullets” (“Frijoles y Fusiles”) project. According to Whitbeck, he first met Ríos Montt on July 7, 1982, when the general invited him to lunch at his house to discuss providing food and other forms of humanitarian assistance to the people living in conflict zones. At the time, Whitbeck was working for the Christian Children’s Fund in Chimaltenango.

“He told me about his vision of country. We established the Beans and Bullets program – it was to be 80% beans [food and other aid] and 20% bullets [military operations]. We agreed that the military, which was an army of occupation, should change to an army of integration to help the people who were forced to flee the guerrilla.” Whitbeck began visiting the Ixil region regularly (“two or three times a week”) in order to establish the program. He described how he and his team helped construct settlements for desperate Ixiles escaping from guerrilla attacks and created a “food for work” exchange. The people would arrive in terrible condition, “without clothing, barefoot, malnourished, sick.”

Whitbeck elaborated that the Army assisted by transporting medicine, clothing and other supplies. When the defense asked whether he knew of any State policy to destroy the Ixil people, Whitbeck said “Never, never was there a single program or idea to damage anyone in the Ixil region.” He denied knowing anything about forced displacements, sterilization programs or the existence of “concentration camps.” His work was focused entirely on humanitarian assistance in coordination with the Ríos Montt regime, foreign governments such as Canada and the United States, and international aid organizations.

He had a number of confrontations or encounters with armed insurgents. In December 1982, he helped some 2,000 Ixiles escape from guerrillas in Salquil Grande and surrounding communities. The people were airlifted out in helicopters, which the guerrillas shot at with machine guns. By contrast, the army provided protection for the civilian population: “that was the Army’s objective.”

Although the prosecution fired a series of questions at Whitbeck about Army involvement in massacres, rape, torture, bombings of refugees and destruction of crops, the witness was consistent in denying any knowledge of such practices. Whitbeck was also quizzed further about his relationship to Ríos Montt, saying that he was a member of his political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), and was a vice president candidate on the FRG ticket with Ríos Montt in 1990.

When Whitbeck’s testimony was done, defense attorney Cornejo announced that a third witness was now available, apparently in response to Cornejo’s phone calls. Antonio Arenales Forno took the stand to discuss his experience in the United Nations and other international institutions in connection to the question of charges against Guatemala for crimes against humanity. Arenales Forno is the Secretary of Peace in the government of President Otto Pérez Molina and was recently named President of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights (COPREDEH). He has been an advisor to the United Nations for more than twenty years and served as Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, the European Union, and the UN office in Geneva.

The very first question from Cornejo prompted an objection that in turn sparked a heated exchange between the defense and the tribunal. The question was whether Guatemala was accused of crimes against humanity in international forums. In objecting, the prosecutor pointed out that the tribunal was not judging the State of Guatemala but two individuals. The judge agreed, reminding the courtroom that the tribunal – and no other entity – was responsible for deciding whether or not the charges made in this case were valid. She said there were people of “bad faith” spreading the rumor that the court had already decided on a sentence against the two accused, which was not true. Cornejo argued forcibly that the judge was denying him the right to defend his client by questioning the witness.

Barrios permitted the lawyer to reformulate the question but the entire exchange between defense and witness was disrupted by countless objections from the prosecution and interventions by the judge, as Cornejo tried to elicit Arenales Forno’s analysis of the bearing of international human rights law on the state of Guatemala. He was repeatedly reminded that Arenales Forno appeared as a fact witness, not an expert, and therefore could only address the facts of the case.

Arenales Forno spoke briefly about the difference between international criminal tribunals and the Guatemalan criminal system. He said no one could be sanctioned for crimes against humanity because the crime is not contained in Guatemalan law. He said there was no genocide in Guatemala.

For the prosecution, Francisco Vivar asked Arenales Forno whether he was in the Ixil region during 1982-83. Arenales Forno was not. There were no more questions.

Judge Barrios asked Cornejo about his remaining witnesses. He said he had not been able to contact them; they were outside the capital or possibly outside the country. The judge requested that he provide the court with their contact information and addresses so that they could be located and escorted by court officers to the tribunal to testify, as required by law.

Cornejo then requested that four of his remaining witnesses be stricken from the list. One – Julio Balconi Tiburcios – was unable to serve because of his current position in the government. The other three – Roberto Mata Galvez, Juan Miguel Torrebiarte, and Miguel Angel De Jesus Fuentes Aparicio – could not be found. The judge accepted their withdrawal.

Cornejo said he wasn’t sure he would be able to find the addresses of the rest, and Barrios suggested that perhaps the news media in the room could broadcast the names of the missing witnesses to help the court locate them.

Finally, the defense broadcast a video presented as evidence in the case. The video opened with a crudely recorded interview with a middle-aged women. In response to questions asked off-screen, the woman told a story of guerrillas assassinating people in November 1981. Her father and brother were killed; she was not sure why. Then the army came and the people felt safer and more confident. “Through Ríos Montt we had more peace and security.” The voice asked whether the guerrillas included foreigners. “Possibly, because there were some tall ones.”

A second person was interviewed – this time an elderly man in a straw hat. He was asked what the situation in Quiché was like. The man said that life was peaceful until the guerrillas arrived in 1981 and threatened the communities. Many people fled and some were killed. Some were captured when they went to do their planting and taken away. After the Army came, there was more confidence.  “Thank God for General Ríos Montt; there was security everywhere.”

Edgar Pérez interrupted to object and the judge stopped the video. Pérez stated that the defense was introducing testimonials in a form that was not legal and that contain testimony outside of the scope of this case: the people were not identified; they referred to events in 1981; and they did not say where the events had occurred.

Judge Barrios agreed. She began to elaborate on how Cornejo might rescue part of his video for evidence by reviewing it for legally admissible material but Cornejo withdrew his petition to continue the video.

Barrios closed the proceedings by reminding the lawyers to prepare their closing arguments.

One Comment

  1. i hope a journalist is reading this cause i am efrain rios montts great nephew and i have something i would love to tell the world on camera

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