Last week, in a historic decision, a Guatemalan court found 86-year-old former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. He had been accused of being responsible for the massacre of 1,771 persons, the forced displacement of another 29,000, and the subjecting of the Mayan Ixil people to conditions designed to destroy it. The three-judge panel headed by Jazmin Barrios concluded that the evidence established that the systematic plan to exterminate the Ixil people as a race developed and executed by the Montt government satisfied the definition of genocide. Ríos Montt becomes the first head of state tried and convicted in a domestic court of genocide.
Ríos Montt took power in Guatemala after a coup in 1982, and was ultimately accused of implementing a scorched-earth policy in which troops indiscriminately massacred thousands of indigenous villagers. During the trial, prosecutors said that Ríos Montt, at a minimum, looked the other way as soldiers used arson, rape, and torture to try to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during his 1982-1983 rule, the most violent period of a civil war that ran from 1960-1996 and which claimed the lives of as many as 250,000 Guatemalans. The conflict pitted several different insurgent groups against the Guatemalan state; however, the vast majority of those killed were civilians from amongst the country’s indigenous population.
Mr. Ríos Montt’s attorneys did not dispute the majority of the eyewitness’ testimony. They argued that any crimes committed during that time were the work of rogue elements and that Mr. Ríos Montt was not responsible for the criminal acts committed by the military. Even after the verdict, President Otto Perez Molina insisted that there had been no genocide in Guatemala, although his administration did issue a statement stating that it respected the court’s ruling and the independence of the judiciary. Such statements by the government, as well as the court’s own actions in this case, show the power of a strong independent judiciary in the face of government wrongdoing—even in cases of genocide or other human rights violations. In fact, Judge Barrios is quoted in the media as saying that the attorney general’s office has the responsibility to pursue justice against others involved in perpetrating crimes against humanity and genocide in Guatemala. Consequently, it is expected that there will be further investigations and prosecution in connection with the genocide and war crimes that resulted in Ríos Montt’s conviction.
The trial has been heavily watched as a test of the Central American country’s ability to bring its former leaders to trial on war crimes. Now, there is precedent that might encourage other prosecutions of war criminals. The verdict was not only important to the Maya-Ixil who have suffered so much and have finally achieved some justice, but also to society as it recognizes that wrongdoing will be punished even to those in positions of power in an effort to ensure that genocide and other crimes against humanity never happen again. Additionally, the trial demonstrates that even a small-impoverished Central American country can carry out its own war crimes trial effectively and successfully.