Monday, March 18, 2013

Guatemala Tries Rios Montt on Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity

Despite mixed reports regarding its timing, the trial against Guatemalan ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt and former military intelligence chief Jose Rodriguez Sanchez is set to begin this Tuesday. The two are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, in connection with the massacre of some 1,700 indigenous Guatemalans as well as the forced displacement of 29,000 people during the most violent period of the country’s bloody civil war.

On March 9 it was reported that the trial would be temporarily suspended after a judge placed an injunction on the trial after Montt’s defense team disputed an earlier ruling preventing them from using expert witnesses. However, last week the court clarified that the case against Rios Montt and Rodriquez Sanchez will begin on Tuesday as planned. Also last week, the Constitutional Court rejected Montt’s claim that he was covered under a military amnesty law, shooting down one of the defense’s main arguments.

The Open Society Justice Initiative has set up RiosMontt-Trial.org as a source of regular updates on the trial and analysis from experts present at the trial in Guatemala City. According to the site’s overview of tomorrow’s proceedings, the oral phase of the trial is expected to last a minimum of six weeks, and will be presided over by a tribunal consisting of Judges Yazmin Barrios, Patricia Bustamante and Pablo Xitumul. Barrios will serve as chief judge of the panel, which is good news for human rights advocates. As the National Security Archives’ Kate Doyle has pointed out, Barrios has presided over a number of landmark human rights cases in Guatemala, including the 1990 murder of Myrna Mack and the cases of the 1982 Dos Erres and Plan de Sanchez massacres.

The stakes are high in the case. The New York Times reports that Guatemala has made major strides in improving its rickety justice system in recent years, largely as the result of the efforts of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz.  But the trial is an unprecedented test for the country’s court system, which is still notoriously corrupt. Rios Montt is the first ex-dictator in the region to face legal charges of crimes against humanity, and Guatemala is the first country in the world to prosecute a former leader for genocide in its own court system.  

As the Times notes, even victims set to serve as witnesses in the trial are amazed that prosecutors have been able to force Rios Montt to see his day in court.  If the tribunal finds him guilty, it would not only be an important achievement for human rights activists in Guatemala, but a symbolic victory for judicial reform advocates in the country as well.


News Briefs
  • Venezuelan Interim President Nicolas Maduro yesterday called on U.S. President Barack Obama to cancel an alleged assassination plot against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, which he said was being planned by the CIA as well as former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega and former Bush administration official Otto Reich. According to Maduro, the plan was to blame the assassination of Capriles on the government in an attempt to delegitimize the acting president. Both Noriega and Reich have been singled out by Maduro before, and deny having any plans to destabilize the country. Telesur reports that Maduro says the information came from “a very good source,” though he did not provide further information. Interestingly, deceased President Hugo Chavez made similar allegations almost exactly a year ago, saying that the opposition planned to kill Capriles and frame the government ahead of last October’s presidential election.
  • In yet another sign that Maduro is attempting to closely follow Chavez’s footsteps, the interim president launched an official Twitter account yesterday, and his tweets thus far echo the patriotic postings of his predecessor’s Twitter account.
  • Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced on Friday that she will step down from her post as head of UN Women, the United Nations entity tasked with promoting gender equality, and will return to Chile. This paves the way for her participation in Chile’s November presidential elections, in which she is expected to be a top contender. While she did not mention the presidential race, the Miami Herald notes that Bachelet’s participation is all but certain, and many analysts believe her party has no other viable alternative for a candidate.
  • The Associated Press looks at accusations that Honduran police routinely make use of extrajudicial killing squads. As the news agency notes, there is evidence to suggest that police death squads have been operating for at least a decade, and even the current head of the National Police, Juan Carlos Bonilla, has been accused of involvement in them.
  • Friday was the 20th anniversary of the publication of the UN Truth Commission’s report on abuses committed during El Salvador’s Civil War. Both Amnesty International and WOLA’s Geoff Thale marked the occasion by highlighting the ways in which the report’s recommendations have been ignored or only partially implemented by the Salvadoran government.
  • Peru’s La Republica reports that exit polls suggest Susana Villaran, Lima’s first female mayor, narrowly survived a recall vote yesterday. Some 54 percent of Lima residents reportedly voted in her favor, a much higher percentage than polls suggested in the lead-up to the vote. The final results of the referendum are slated to be released later today. Ironically, Luis CastaƱeda Pardo, the son of the former mayor who was a major supporter of Villaran’s ouster, may lose his council seat, according to El Comercio.
  • El Comercio reports that at least two were killed in clashes between informal miners and police in the northern Peruvian region of La Libertad on Friday. The miners had been occupying a gold mine owned by Consorcio Minero Horizonte, and police were acting on orders to evict them. According to Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator, the latest incident brings the total number of deaths in social conflicts since President Ollanta Humala took office in 2011 to 26.
  • After the Colombian military announced on Saturday that it had dismantled a cocaine processing laboratory in the southwest department of Cauca belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rebels have denied this and rejected any links to the drug trade whatsoever. El Tiempo reports that FARC spokesman Rodrigo Granda told reporters in Cuba that the guerrillas are purely a “political-military” organization, and repeated the group’s longstanding claim that the drug trafficking allegations are government propaganda.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner today became the first head of state to be received by Pope Francis I, an interesting turn of events considering her notoriously poor relationship with the pope during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. According to La Nacion, Pope Francis is also slated to meet with Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff later today.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed a new law last week which calls for oil-producing states to share more royalty revenues non-producing states in the country. This comes after Rousseff’s veto of certain provisions opposed by oil producing states was overturned by Congress on March 7. On Friday, the governments of the top producing states of Rio de Janeiro, Espirito Santo and Sao Paulo filed a suit against the law in the Supreme Court. According to the AP, the law lowers the royalties shared among producing states from 26.25 percent to 20 percent, whereas the amount split with non-producing states will jump from 7 percent to 21 percent.
  • The presentation of testimony against former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier continued last Thursday, with another victim of the regime describing the abuses committed against her. According to the AP, the defense asked the victim whether she could have been arrested by mistake, to which she responded: "If I was arrested by mistake, I was imprisoned by mistake and forced into exile by mistake."
  • In Saturday’s Washington Post, the paper’s editorial board lashed out against the governments of Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina for allegedly abusing their authority to silence criticism in the press.
  • Spain’s El Pais has an interview with Organization of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, in which he addresses Chavez’s legacy as well as speculation that he is considering leaving the post to run for a Senate seat in Chile.