The long struggle for justice has come to a point of resolution this week as the High Impact Court “A”courtroom conviction of Guatemala's ex-president General Efraín Ríos Montt brings relief and emotional tears to many of Guatemala's indigenous.
As judgement and sentencing was passed in the National Court on Friday May 10, ultimately the fate of the case resides in Guatemala's highest Constitutional Court which is waiting until Monday May 20 to give its review of the case and final rulings.
It's been a long road to this community's path to justice, a path that will be continuing to bring others to justice.
Over a decade ago Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum worked closely to help in the documentation in order to bring a law suite forward to bring justice to the indigenous people of Guatemala. Menchu Tum is a member of the Quiche branch of the Mayan culture who was raised in the mountainous region of Guatemala most affected by crimes committed during years of conflict in the region.
“This verdict is historic. It's monumental,” said Nobel Laureate Menchu Tum.
Charged with the actions of genocide and crimes against humanity during his one year in office in what has been considered by historians ‘decades of unrest' in the Guatemalan region from 1960 to 1996, General Ríos Montt was convicted and sentenced to eighty years in prison for his direction and leadership from 1982 to 1983 that resulted in actions of atrocity under his command.
After the verdict was released following proceedings in the courtroom some family members of Guatemala's military, roughly 100 people, who continue to support former General, protested outside the Matamoros Barracks where former general and ex-de-facto Head of State Efraín Ríos Montt has been kept under incarceration.
Immediately following the announcement of the verdict in the High Impact Court “A” Ríos Montt was taken to a hospital under what has been described as health duress.
“The judgment is an example for many other countries struggling to address the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence after periods of mass atrocities,” said Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.
On the announcement of the sentence Amnesty International called General Ríos Montt the “intellectual author” of the killing of 1,771 persons and the forced displacement of what Amnesty says have been “…tens of thousands more from the Ixil triangle region of southern Quiché department in 1982 and 1983 in the midst of Guatemala's internal armed conflict.”
“The verdict against Ríos Montt is historic. We waited for 33 years for justice to prevail. It's clear that there is no peace without justice. There is no peace without truth,” said Menchú Tum to Amy Goodman at Democracy Now from her location in Mexico City on Wednesday May 15, following the Monday decision by the court. “We need justice for the victims for there to be real peace. This verdict is crucial. It complements a long process of investigation, of denouncing the abuses, and a process that the victims hope will heal and result in reparations. So this verdict isn't just about asking somebody to say they're sorry. It is important to apologize, and President Otto Pérez Molina has to apologize. And the court will move in that direction. President Otto Pérez Molina must apologize, and the court has instructed him to do so,” she continued.
From 1960 to 1996 some 200,000 people disappeared or were killed in crimes that plagued the mostly indigenous mountain communities of Guatemala. Cases of human rights abuse under disappearance, torture and rape in systematic violence have been documented in crimes as over eighty percent of those affected were men, women and children of Mayan heritage.
“Guatemala must now follow up on this historic moment by ensuring that all those who took part in the murder, torture, rape and disappearance of tens of thousands of people are brought to justice,” said Sebastian Elgueta, a researcher on Guatemala for Amnesty International.
“With the outbreak of the internal armed confrontation in 1962, Guatemala entered a tragic and devastating stage of its history, with enormous human, material and moral cost. In the documentation of human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation, the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) registered a total of 42,275 victims, including men, women and children. Of these, 23,671 were victims of arbitrary execution and 6,159 were victims of forced disappearance. Eighty-three percent of fully identified victims were Mayan and seventeen percent were Ladino,” said the United Nations backed CEH – Commission for Historical Clarification that was set into motion by the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala – that worked within the larger civilian and humanitarian MINUGUA mission in June 1994.
Since 1994 the MINUGUA mission has worked with over 250 human rights monitors, legal experts and indigenous experts, as well as police, to verify reports of atrocity in Guatemala.
“Their presence and verification activities have focused public attention on human rights and the related problem of impunity, reinforcing the declining trend in political violence,” said the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations.
During decades the burden of proof has been laid predominately at the foot of the surviving families of those who were killed or disappeared. Continuing uncooperative stands by Guatemala's military forces in investigating years of reported crimes has slowed the process in reaching transparency and justice for those who have been deeply affected.
“The army continues to refuse to provide information to investigations into killings, enforced disappearances, the use of rape as a weapon of war, and other crimes committed during the conflict. The failure to provide any documentation places a huge burden on families and victims who pursue justice, or simply seeking to find the whereabouts of their disappeared loved ones,” says Amnesty International.
In 1996 the conflict in Guatemala officially ended in the signing of a Peace Accord. But this occurred only after thousands of lost lives. During court proceedings former Head of Intelligence in Guatemala, Rodriguez Sanchez, has been absolved of all charges.
“We received thousands of testimonies; we accompanied the survivors at such moving moments as the exhumation of their loved ones from clandestine cemeteries; we listened to former heads of State and the high command of both the Army and the guerrillas; we read thousands of pages of documents received from a full range of civil society's organisations,” outlines the Guatemala Commission for Historical Clarification. “The Commission's Report has considered all the versions and takes into account what we have heard, seen and read regarding the many atrocities and brutalities,”they added.
The undeniable cases of government military atrocities in Guatemala have affected Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum personally. She lost both her brothers, mother, father and sister in-law under severe violence during the years of conflict in the region. Her mother's body, as well as other members of her family, are thought to have been buried in a mass graves.
“…here in Guatemala, women were raped, girls were raped, they strangled children, they assassinated and wiped out entire indigenous peoples, just because they thought they were so-called subversives and communists. So humanity really has to look into what occurred,” said the Nobel Laureate to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.
“Here during the genocide we felt so alone. We felt powerless. And we felt that nobody had our back. But now a court has convicted Ríos Montt of genocide. So, for us, that suffices, that the fact that genocide was committed is recognized means that nobody will ever forget that genocide was committed,” continued Menchú Tum.