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Update on Guatemalan Genocide Trial

February 5, 2013
Rios Montt on trial.  Credit: JORGE DAN LOPEZ/REUTERS

Rios Montt on trial. Credit: Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

Guatemala City, February 4, 2013—Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez ended a four-hour hearing today in the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt by accepting all of the witnesses, experts and documents submitted as evidence by the prosecution. The defense, by contrast, failed in its bid to incorporate experts and documentary evidence on behalf of their client, although the judge approved several defense witnesses.

The ruling signifies that the case will now advance to the Sentencing Tribunal for a decision on when to open the final, oral phase of the groundbreaking trial against the retired general and his intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. Both men are accused as the masterminds behind a “scorched earth” military campaign against rebel forces during 1982-83 that massacred hundreds of Mayan civilians living in the northwestern Ixil region of the country.

The hearing took place on the 14th floor of the Tribunals Tower in Guatemala City before an audience of human rights defenders, Mayan activists, journalists and other observers. Ríos Montt sat behind his three attorneys, listening to the proceeding and taking notes, while prosecutor Orlando López and four representatives of the victims shared a long table opposite him.

Although the afternoon was dominated by the judge as he read aloud the names of the hundreds of witnesses proposed by the Public Ministry – many of them survivors of the massacres – his rejection of much of the defense team’s evidence sparked a heated response from Ríos Montt’s lawyers.  Attorneys Francisco Palomo, Danilo Rodríguez, and Marco Cornejo railed against the ruling, calling the proceeding a “lynching” and protesting that the court was “violating our client’s right to a defense.” “We can’t enter into a trial without experts,” complained Palomo, “especially when the prosecution has 64 of them.”

Gálvez pointed out that they had submitted the names of experts (such as retired general  José Luis Quilo Ayuso) without providing their analysis or expert reports, rendering them invalid. The judge also explained that rather than enter documents into evidence, Ríos Montt’s attorneys had submitted last-minute requests for Ministry of Defense records, which they hoped to obtain through a court order. In effect, the judge was pointing out the failure of the defense team to do the work that the case required. When Palomo complained that they had not had enough time to prepare, the judge shot back that the genocide case against Ríos Montt and his senior officers was originally filed in 2001. [For excellent background on the case in Spanish, see the summary posted by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos—CALDH), one of the organizations representing victims of the genocide.)

Judge Gálvez also rejected the defense team’s objections to the admissibility of army plans and records connected to Operation Sofía, a violent military assault in the Ixil Triangle in July and August of 1982 that resulted in the destruction of Mayan settlements and the killing of civilians. In justifying his decision, he pointed out that the Inter-American Court had ruled repeatedly that Guatemala could not withhold evidence from criminal human rights trials on the basis of “state secrets.” Among the cases cited by Gálvez was the court’s ruling in the 1990 assassination of Myrna Mack, “Caso Myrna Mack Chang v. Guatemala (a sentence rendered on November 25, 2003), in which the court wrote:

…in the case of human rights violations, the state authorities cannot resort to mechanisms such as State secrets or the confidentiality of the information, or by virtue of public interest or national security, in order to avoid submitting information required by the judicial or administrative authorities charged with a pending investigation or process. [See paragraph 180]

The Operation Sofía documents and military plans admitted as evidence by Gálvez today are likely to play a central role in the prosecution’s effort to prove the accusations against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez.

The genocide case now moves to the sentencing court, “Tribunal Primero A de Mayor Riesgo,” presided by Judge Jazmín Barrios. In the coming days, the tribunal will determine when the oral phase of the trial will begin – probably sometime in the next three to four months.

Judge Barrios has presided over some of the most important human rights trials in Guatemala, including the trials of military officers in the cases of the 1990 assassination of Myrna Mack, the murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi in 1998, and the massacre cases Dos Erres and Plan de Sánchez.

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