Human rights in Guatemala Justice confused

The trial of an ailing ex-dictator is plagued by chaos.  AS COURTROOM dramas go, the trial of ex-dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity has been both riveting and maddening.

The trial of an ailing ex-dictator is plagued by chaos.  AS COURTROOM dramas go, the trial of ex-dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity has been both riveting and maddening.

His conviction and 80-year prison sentence imposed in May 2013 caused jubilation among Maya Indians who for 30 years have accused soldiers under his command of carrying out massacres.Ten days later, the first conviction for genocide of a former head of state in his own country was quashed on flimsy technicalities. It looked like Guatemala’s justice system remained torn between the same left- and right-wing forces that fought a 36-year-long civil war ending in 1996.

On January 5th the ailing 88-year-old, wearing dark glasses, was wheeled into a packed 15th-floor courtroom in Guatemala City on a trolley after a judge dismissed the arguments of his defence lawyers that he was too ill to attend a retrial. The excitement on his arrival was palpable. “He’s going up to the 15th floor. But [he’s] going down,” someone enthusiastically tweeted. His former intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, also arrived in a wheelchair. However, the retrial was suspended because of last-minute doubts about the impartiality of the main judge, who a decade ago wrote a master’s thesis on genocide

Such chaos has plagued the proceedings against Mr Ríos Montt from the beginning and raises doubts about whether the court system is robust enough to provide justice in such a momentous case. His defence team continues to question the validity of the entire legal process because of a 1986 amnesty law (introduced by another dictator). The general’s enemies, backed by international legal organisations, argue that anything less than a genocide conviction would be a travesty. The previous judge, condemning Mr Ríos Montt in 2013, said the army had killed 1,771 members (about 5.5%) of the Ixil ethnic population with his connivance during his rule in 1982-83, the bloodiest period of the civil war.

Some believe that even if the general committed crimes against humanity, the genocide charge goes too far. “The human-rights violations were not directed specifically against an ethnic group but against all who were perceived to support the guerrillas,” says Eduardo Stein, a former vice-president.

The case has shown the extent of political interference in the court system. Mr Ríos Montt’s main prosecutor was pushed aside after the initial conviction with the blessing of Guatemala’s conservative president, Otto Pérez Molina. The retrial seemed to show that the wheels of Guatemalan justice would continue to turn—however slowly and imperfectly. Its messy suspension casts that hopeful expectation in doubt.

The Economist |

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