Spanish Embassy Case Nearing Close

On December 9, prosecutors in the case against Pedro García Arredondo presented, among other evidence, a written declaration of Odette Arzu, a now-deceased Red Cross volunteer who was present during the occupation of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City in 1980. Arzu recalled that when then Ambassador Máximo Cajal fled the building after the fire started, she heard a voice from a police radio saying: “Kill him, they don’t want anybody alive” (Matenlo—que no quieren nadie vivo).

Prosecutors also introduced into evidence an official report of the fate of the one protester who survived the embassy fire—Gregorio Yujá Xona. He was kidnapped from a private hospital and tortured. The official report recorded that his corpse was found on the university campus on February 1 with a paper in his pocket: “Executed for treason. The Spanish ambassador will face the same fate.” Prosecutors further presented evidence that indigenous protesters had taken prior steps to document abuses inflicted on them.

For its part, the defense presented a police report which identified that one of the occupiers used a megaphone to warn security forces that they would execute the hostages if the security forces did not vacate the premises in ten minutes. The report also notes that firearms, machetes, clothes and enough supplies to last for days were found in the embassy following the fire.

The defense is due to present their final two witnesses at the next hearing on December 19, after which the tribunal is expected to advance to closing arguments.

As the Spanish embassy case comes to an end, all eyes remain on the high-risk court as the same three-judge tribunal is scheduled to reopen a new genocide trial against former head of state Efraín Ríos Montt and his then head of intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez on January 5. Questions remain over whether a new trial will indeed start in the new year, and now defense lawyers have asserted that the poor health of the defendants may also prevent any new trial at this stage.

Rios Montt was absent at a December 2 hearing in which representatives for Rodriguez Sanchez’ lawyers successfully argued that he should no longer be subjected to preventive detention. Rodriguez Sanchez had been detained in a military hospital following the initial indictment. Despite being acquitted on May 10, 2013 in the first trial, he was again subjected to preventive detention after the constitutional court annulled the first verdict, and now faces the prospect of a new trial. After the hearing last week, he was released on bail (Q500,000, approximately USD 65,000) to serve house arrest while awaiting any new trial.

With Ríos Montt absent from the hearing, the prosecution asked the court to declare him in default, seeking for him to be detained pending any new trial rather than left under house arrest. The judge rejected this argument, hearing the medical excuse provided by defense attorneys and requiring independent medical confirmation, but finding that no change in circumstances since his initial house arrest order would compel his detention. Ríos Montt, 88 years old, had spinal surgery in February and has had weak health since then, including a pulmonary infection. Defense lawyers asserted that his deteriorating health situation might prevent his presence at any new trial—and that this would depend on medical clearance.