Guatemala’s General Efrain Rios Montt has been sentenced by a first-instance court to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity, but legal challenges to the ruling persist, and there is a chance that the 86 year-old former dictator could request a presidential pardon.
On May 10, former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt became the first former head of state to be convicted of genocide by his country’s own court system, and the first ex-dictator in Latin America to be convicted of crimes against humanity. After hearing final arguments from the prosecution and defense, the tribunal ruled that Rios Montt was responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity, as he directly oversaw military activities and did nothing to stop the killing of 1,771 Maya Ixil civilians in a 1982-83 military campaign. The tribunal sentenced him to 80 years in prison for the crimes, 50 for genocide and 30 for crimes against humanity. Co-defendant Jose Mauricio Rodriguez was found not guilty of either charge.
The conviction is an important victory for Guatemala’s democratic institutions, especially its court system. While the country still has one of the lowest conviction rates in the region, with less than ten percent of cases filed resulting in convictions, the trial demonstrates that major improvements have been made to judicial independence. This progress has been in a large part due to the work enterprising Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, as well as the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), which has been dedicated to cleaning up the country’s court system and going after dirty judges.
It is important to note, however, that this is not the last word for General Rios Montt, as his legal team has vowed to challenge the ruling in a higher court. He may also eventually request a pardon on health grounds, as imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori has done in Peru (although there is reason to doubt the Peruvian ex-leader’s health claims). While Perez Molina released a statement last week promising to respect the ruling, he has denied that genocide occurred in Guatemala in the past, and in a Friday interview on CNN en Español stressed that the “ruling is not yet firm.” If Rios Montt requests a presidential pardon, it seems that Perez Molina would likely grant it.
For more on the significance of the ruling, see coverage in the L.A. Times, The New Yorker and New York Times, although Mike Allison of the Central American Politics blog makes the excellent point that “just about everyone who is writing in English is supportive of a guilty verdict." This is especially obvious in the NYT piece, which characterizes Rios Montt’s defense statement as “rambling,” ignoring the fact that a judge denied his previous request to read a prepared statement, forcing him to improvise.
- The AP and Prensa Libre report that Rios Montt is currently being held in the Matamoros military prison in Guatemala, where a group of around 50 supporters rallied to demand that a higher court nullify the verdict against the official.
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