Lawyers Without Borders Canada (LWBC) was present on site in Guatemala today to hear a verdict which was a worldwide first: the former Head of State of Guatemala, General José Efraín Ríos Montt, was found guilty of having planned and implemented a genocidal policy that caused devastation and the death of thousands of members of the Maya Ixil ethnic group. José Efraín Ríos Montt is condemned to 50 years of imprisonment for genocide and 30 years for war crimes. However, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez is acquitted, as the tribunal ruled that he was not part of the chain of command and had no control over the crimes committed.
LWBC welcomes this judgment, the first to establish criminal responsibility of a senior leader for crimes that were committed during the Guatemalan civil war which raged between 1960 and 1996.
"The announcement of the sentence is undoubtedly a historic step forward for those who fight against impunity in Guatemala, in the Americas and around the world. This is the first time a head of state has been convicted of genocide in his own country”, commented Mr. Pascal Paradis, Executive Director of LWBC.
"Mr. Ríos Montt, as the head of a military regime, ruled the country from 1982 to 1983, when the so-called "scorched earth policy" peaked. This policy aimed to eliminate the Mayan population, wrongly suspected of supporting the guerrillas, which resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 people in a series of massacres and unspeakable atrocities," continued Mr. Paradis.
This decision is the result of a hard legal battle led by the Public Ministry of Guatemala, as well as victims and the lawyers who represented them. But Canada is also closely linked to this unprecedented advance.
The LWBC team has, indeed, actively contributed to ensure that justice is done for the victims in this historic trial. Tens of attorneys and Canadian lawyers affiliated with LWBC as volunteers or staff have worked hard for many months to support local partners in preparation of evidence, legal arguments and procedure. "Lawyers Without Borders Canada is proud to have lent a hand since 2009 at the Centre for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH) and the Guatemalan Human Rights Law Office (BDH), the main partner of LWBC Guatemala, which represented the victims in this case", said Mr. Paradis.
The decision was made at the end of a trial which saw an impressive number of witnesses testify in front of a court of "high risk" (Tribunal de alto riesgo), appropriately named due to the highly sensitive nature of issues before it. The result of this trial is all the more striking as defense lawyers used several tactics to stall the trial and attack the independence of the court, while partisans of the accused issued false statements and threats directed at the judges, lawyers and other participants in the trial.
Crédits photos © Avocats sans frontières Canada / Marcelo Riveros