In a Historic First, a Dictator Is Tried for Genocide By His Own People

Ian Becker

Former Guatemalan President José Efraín Ríos Montt and former Intelligence Director José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, who together controlled the country between 1982 and 1983, are currently facing genocide charges in a trial many thought would never come. "It is the first time that a former head of state is being tried for genocide in a credible national court, by the national authorities, in the country where the alleged crimes took place," says Marcie Mersky of the International Center for Transitional Justice in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera. "Getting this case to court has been no easy feat in Guatemala, where decades of armed conflict and strict military control of the government left behind an enfeebled and politically compromised judicial system, as well as a deeply entrenched expectation of impunity for even the most heinous of crimes." A a member of Congress until 2012, Montt evaded prosecution because of a Guatemalan law that grants immunity to elected legislators. In January, when a judge found sufficient evidence linking Montt and Sanchez to the killing of at least 1,700 indigenous people in a counter-insurgency plan executed under their command, they were called to trial. For the next several weeks, three judges will hear testimony about the  Dirty War, in which the state slaughtered 200,000 people of the Maya-Ixil and three other ethnic groups over three decades, according to a 1999 UN truth commission report.  Prior to the trial, Guatemala's current president, Otto Perez Molina—formerly a general under Montt—declared that there had been no genocide in Guatemela. Since the trial began on March 19, pro-military supporters of Montt have gathered outside the courtroom each day to chant "There was no genocide here" while playing military march music and the Guatemalan national anthem. With hundreds more testimonies to be heard and multiple experts to be called, a verdict could be months away. But according to a New York Times op-ed by Anita Isaacs, a professor of political science at Haverford College, the trial is about much more than a guilty verdict: Indeed, the real test may actually come after the verdict. Those implicated in wartime atrocities hope the trial will satisfy victims’ demands for retribution. Survivors, however, see the trial as opening up the floodgates of justice. They have a long list of perpetrators they want to see punished next.   Nor is the right to try perpetrators for war crimes the only right demanded by indigenous Guatemalans. Having mobilized for over a decade to bring Mr. Ríos Montt to justice, they take enormous pride in making the trial happen. They are emerging more confident and resolved to continue fighting to claim all the political, social and economic rights they are owed as Guatemalan citizens.

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