Guatemala's first genocide trial was suspended this week. Rios Montt, dictator between 1982-83, stood accused of presiding over the murders of 1771 indigenous Ixils. Unlike most genocide trials which are held in international courts, this trial was in Guatemala with Guatemalan judges. Following the reinstatement of Judge Carol Patricia Flores by the Supreme Court, the case was suspended after she ordered that all actions taken in the case since she was asked to step down were no longer valid. This sets the case back to November 2011 and requires all testimony be redone.
Between 1960 and 1996, 200,000 people were killed during Civil War in Guatemala. 93% of human rights abuses in the Civil War have been attributed to the State's Security Services by a United Nations-sponsored Commission on Historical Classification. While soldiers involved in the conflict have been tried (with some receiving sentences of over 6000 years), this is the first attempt at trying someone for genocide.
Rios Montt is accused of ordering 15 different murders during his year in office. His former chief of military intelligence Jose Maurico Rodrigues Sanchez is also standing trial. During the four week trial, survivors have provided eye witness accounts of mass murder, torture, and rape. Many of the survivors see this trial as an opportunity for justice to be served.
"J ust from my family I lost 14 members," testified Benjamin Manuel Jeronimo.Jacinto Lopez's daughter Magdalen was stabbed repeatedly in the neck by soldiers. They then shot and killed his young sons. His in-laws were also killed and most of his village wiped out. "They killed my family and destroyed my crops," said Lopez. "They took even my cows."
Such accounts were typical in the trial. The prosecution argues that the Military accused the villagers of harboring insurgents and used this as an excuse to exterminate rural Ixil Mayan villages. The charges maintain he personally approved a military strategy widely known as "scorched earth" and that they specifically targeted the Ixil because of their ethnicity.
Montt denies even giving the orders and claims there is no evidence, written or spoken, that he in any way did so. According to the United Nations, this is the first time in the modern era that a former head of state is being tried for genocide within his own nation's justice system.
Judge Flores was initially suspended as judge after the prosecution had her recused due to perceived biases. Upon her reinstatement, she immediately ordered all evidence given to her replacement to be null and void. This set the trial back to the beginning. After the decision, the tribunal of judges that replaced Flores refused to uphold her ruling and they have applied to the Constitutional Court to have the order overturned. The United Nations has spoken out over the issue, with the High Commissioner for Human Rights stating through its spokesperson that it "is a blow to the numerous victims of the atrocities committed during Guatemala's civil war."
Regardless of the outcome, many consider that too much time has passed for a fair trial to occur. Many of the survivors do not believe justice can ever be achieved. Rios Montt and his co-accused sit emotionless as the eye-witnesses give their testimony and have, until now, shown no remorse. Even if the trial is to begin again, Rios Montt is 86 years old. The first trial began in 2011. He could be close to 90 by the time any second trial is finished. Any jail sentence is likely to be short-lived.