It was an emotionally charged afternoon in Guatemala’s High Risk Court yesterday, as Judge Yasmin Barrios delivered her verdict on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against Guatemala’s former military dictator José Efrain Rios Montt and his chief of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. The courtroom was packed and teaming with reporters. I sat amongst the Maya Ixil survivors, many of whom had recounted stories during the trial of rape, torture and the mass murder of their families and communities. Two rows behind me sat Nobel Peace Prize winner and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Rigoberta Menchú, who has dedicated her life to improving the plight of Guatemala’s indigenous population. A meter ahead of me stood American documentary film-maker, Pamela Yates, who was present in Guatemala during Rios Montt’s rule and documented the atrocities committed by his army. It was her film “When the Mountains Tremble” which sparked my interest in Guatemala six years ago.
The heat of the room was oppressive, even for the Maya Ixil woman sitting next to me, who started fanning herself rapidly with a large newspaper and kindly wafted air for a few moments towards my face. The search for justice for victims of these massacres has been a long uphill battle against military, political and economic elite who hold strong interests in seeing that prosecutions from Guatemala’s armed conflict are not sought. Many thought this day would never come.
As the judge began her verdict, Rios Montt’s lawyer showed blatant disrespect for the court by loudly and obnoxiously interrupting the judge to ask for the press to move to a different area. He had shown up to court in blue jeans and an open-collared shirt which exposed a large gold chain, looking as though he had come from the set of a Mexican narco-cinema film. The judge spoke: “José Efrain Rios Montt is responsible for genocide (and)…is responsible for crimes against humanity.” The judge ruled that he had complete knowledge of all the massacres which took place during his rule and sentenced him to 50 years of imprisonment for genocide and 30 years of imprisonment for crimes against humanity. The courtroom erupted in cheers and the tension rose as the media increasingly suffocated the freshly convicted, ignoring repeated requests from the judge to stand back. Rios Montt’s chief of military intelligence was acquitted on the charges due to insufficient evidence linking him to the massacres.
“We are going to do the following,” said Judge Barrios. We (the judge and clerks) are going to stay seated and wait for the national police and penitentiary authorities to take away the accused.” Rios Montt’s lawyers tried to whisk him away but the judge said “NO! The accused can NOT leave the courtroom until he is taken away to prison by the police and penitentiary authority.” The courtroom again erupted in cheers and tension was stretched as people hardly believed they were witnessing this historic moment in the fight for justice in Guatemala and the world.
Judge Barrios continued her judgment with a view to the future. She urged the Public Ministry to continue the investigation of others who participated in the massacres of the civil war and stressed that “these types of acts should never be repeated.” Her judgement is likely to make many of Guatemala’s political and military elite nervous, including Guatemala’s president, Otto Perez Molina, who was a military commander during the armed conflict in an area hit by massacres. In the coming days, security will be of utmost importance for those who have worked on this trial. The Public Ministry and lawyers who represented the victims quickly left the courtroom and the building to cars waiting to take them away.
The tension remained as Rios Montt sat waiting to be taken to prison. He had previously been under house arrest and it was obvious the authorities were not prepared to transport him to the penitentiary. Speaking with Pamela Yates, she commented on how strange this was. We thought perhaps the poor preparation was due to the fact that Guatemala’s High Risk court was not used to handing out convictions.
The Maya Ixil victims were in shock, not knowing whether or not to clap and hardly believing that Guatemala’s poor, disenfranchised indigenous people had held the elite class responsible for atrocities committed against them. Many of the women were crying and hugging each other. It had been an emotionally gruelling battled. When Rios Montt was finally taken to prison, the crowd turned and applauded the victims and witnesses causing further tears. The victims of this genocide have fought long and hard to see justice in Guatemala, recounting unspeakable horrors inflicted upon themselves, their families and their communities. It was an incredibly emotional scene.
Next, came an applause for Judge Barrios. She has been subjected to numerous death threats throughout the trial and has taken a great risk overseeing such a high profile case, let alone convicting one of Guatemala’s military elite. The Maya Ixil cross their hands to their chest and bowed repeatedly, thanking the court for seeking justice for the unspeakable crimes committed against them.
Lawyers Without Borders was among the last people to leave the courtroom. As we waited for our safe ride away from the courthouse, Rigoberta Menchú gave press interviews behind us and Judge Barrios waited patiently for the courtroom to fully clear. On Monday we will attend reparations hearings to determine compensation for the victims of the genocide. Justice has been served against Rios Montt, but many others have yet to be held responsible for further gross human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s 36 year civil war. The courage and resolve demonstrated by the Public Ministry, victims’ lawyers, witnesses, human rights groups and the judiciary continue to bring optimism to the fight against impunity in Guatemala.