Strong Statements of Concern, including from the President, Polarize Guatemalan Public Opinion in the Final Days of Rios Montt Genocide Trial

The historic trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity of Efrain Ríos Montt, the former general who ruled Guatemala from 1982-3, has been ongoing since March 19. After nearly five weeks, the trial is expected to come to a close later this week.

However, in recent days there has been very strong pressure in opposition to the trial from prominent voices in Guatemala, and assertions that the trial is inconsistent with peace in the country—indeed that the trial is “betraying the peace and dividing Guatemala.” This statement was formally endorsed on Tuesday by Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina.

Ríos Montt, and his former director of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, face charges arising from military operations largely targeting Guatemala’s Mayan indigenous peoples during Ríos Montt’s seventeen-month rule during the most brutal period of the country’s 36-year civil war. This is the first time a former head of state has faced genocide charges before a national court.

The final expert witnesses are expected to testify for the defense this week. In the past five weeks, dozens of survivors and witnesses have offered harrowing testimony of massacres, mass displacement, forced disappearances, child abductions, and rape, among other crimes. Expert witnesses have testified concerning international law concerning genocide and crimes against humanity, command responsibility, the significance of the peace agreements, and the history of the conflict, mass displacement, and conditions for the indigenous populations in the so-called Ixil Triangle.

A ruling is expected imminently. The implementation of any judgment will be significant in the consolidation of justice and accountability for the gravest human rights abuses.

On Tuesday, in the waning days of this historic trial, prominent former government officials, including former vice-presidents and ministers, and signatories to the country’s peace agreements ending the conflict, issued a strongly-worded public declaration expressing concern that the trial may increase polarization and endanger the peace process.

The statement reads: “The charge of genocide against officials of the Guatemalan Army constitutes a charge not only against these officials or against the Army, but against the State of Guatemala as a whole.” It continued that a genocide conviction would herald “serious dangers for our country, including a worsening of the social and political polarization which will reverse the peace which has been achieved until now.” (“La acusación de genocidio en contra de oficiales del Ejército de Guatemala constituye una acusación, no sólo contra los oficiales o contra el Ejército, sino contra el Estado de Guatemala en su conjunto que, de consumarse, implica serios peligros para nuestro país, incluyendo una agudización de la polarización social y política que revertirá la paz hasta ahora alcanzada.”)

Those endorsing this statement were government signatories to the peace agreement Gustavo Porras, Richard Aitkenhead, and Raquel Zelaya; former Vice Presidents Luis Flores Asturias (under President Arzu, 1996-2000) and Eduardo Stein (under President Berger, 2004-08); former ministers under the Arzu administration Arabella Castro, Rodolfo Mendoza, Marta Altolaguirre, Marco Tulio Sosa, Mariano Ventura y José Alejandro; and former URNG delegate to the peace process Adrían Zapata. Porras was also a defense witness in the trial.

The statement was signed by three of the four government signatories to Guatemala’s peace agreement. The fourth was current Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who expressed his endorsement to the statement soon after. President Perez Molina’s office issued an official statement of support, and he affirmed: “I do not only support the statement, I join it. (“Me sumo a las declaraciones (…) yo estoy de acuerdo con lo que ellos están diciendo en esa declaración pública. No solo la respaldo, me sumó a ella.”)

Notably, Perez Molina was implicated by a witness in the trial; Perez Molina was a commander in the Nebaj region during the war, where many of the abuses occurred. Perez Molina has strongly denied these accusations, and noted that there were “unjustifiable” acts “as in any war,” but insists that there was never genocide in Guatemala. (“Aquí, como en toda guerra, hubo actos que no son justificables, pero de ahí a decir que hubo genocidio, es una diferencia muy grande.”)

Recent notable statements of support for the trial, and calls for its continuation without interference, have been issued by Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, the United Nations System in Guatemala, the US Embassy in Guatemala, and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Jorge de Leon Duque, Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, had called for the process to be advanced with “objectivity, impartiality and full application of justice,” at the start of the trial. On Wednesday, he noted recent actions and statements that have a polarizing effect, which “could incite violence”, and urged that no undue pressures “manipulate” due process and the impartial exercise of justice.

On Monday, the UN office in Guatemala recognized the trial as a step forward in the development of the state of law and an important sign of the strengthening of democracy in the country. It called on all actors to ensure that those involved in the trial are protected from pressures, intimidation and reprisals.

A statement issued by the US Embassy in Guatemala last week “reiterate[d] the importance of justice for reconciliation in the country, as reflected in the Peace Accords,” and called on “all Guatemalans to respect the legitimacy and integrity of this trial.” The statement further noted that “the experience of Guatemala shows that legal processes to guarantee the respect of fundamental human rights are an important step towards reconciliation”, with “true reconciliation” critical for the country’s progress.

CICIG today also called for restraint and criticized the ads: “CICIG is concerned by the campaign of paid announcements, supplements and audiovisual statements—all of which have the aim of influencing the court’s decision and achieving an acquittal.”

Today, a group of prominent Guatemalans – including UN Special Rapporteur and Frank La Rue, Nobel Peace Prize winner and indigenous rights leader Rigoberta Menchu, and prominent religious leaders – issued a public statement that “there is no peace without truth and justice.” And a delegation of Latin American judges and prosecutors, attending the trial as international observers, is due to give a press conference this afternoon, noting “the central role that [human rights] investigations play in helping societies come to terms with conflictive pasts and lay the grounds for a future based on the rule of law.”

Also this week, a group of international lawyers and organizations – including Avocats Sans Frontieres (ASF)-Canada, International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), and Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) – issued a statement that the “Guatemalan court is respecting the rights of the defense and of due process in the trial of the accused former generals”.