Case against Rios Montt: an essential step towards ending impunity for past crimes in Guatemala and an opportunity for the reinforcement of the rule of law

Press release
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FIDH welcomes the beginning, this 19 March 2013, of the trial against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983) for genocide. The start of the proceedings marks a fundamental and long awaited step towards justice for crimes suffered by indigenous communities during the war.

"The beginning of this trial represents an opportunity to strengthen the democratic institutions and build a fairer society in Guatemala. During all these years of struggle against impunity, the courage, perseverance and patience of witnesses, victims and lawyers have been instrumental in breaking the silence," said FIDH President, Souhayr Belhassen.

Guatemala lived an internal armed conflict for 36 years. Between the years 1981 and 1983 heinous crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed, particularly against the Mayan population. Under the pretext of the "war" against communism, hundreds of indigenous communities in western Guatemala were labeled as "internal enemies." The end of the war was never accompanied by processes to establish the criminal responsibility of the perpetrators of the abuses suffered by civilians during the conflict.

In 2001, the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), that brings together surviving victims of the internal conflict, along with the organization Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH), filed a lawsuit against the military leaders of Rios Montt dictatorship who allegedly masterminded the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The case against Rios Montt has had numerous setbacks. While the AJR has provided more than a hundred witnesses, the prosecution did not investigate the crimes during more than seven years. As a delaying strategy, the defense has brought over one hundred appeals of which 98 have been dismissed. Finally, in 2012 Rios Montt was summoned to appear for the first time before a judge, charges of genocide were confirmed and the case finally reached the trial stage.

The defense has sought to rely on an amnesty prescribed by the National Reconciliation Law. However, the law itself states that the amnesty does not apply to crimes of genocide, torture, forced disappearance or any other offense without statute of limitations. According to international law, those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes cannot benefit from the statute of limitations or amnesties. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in cases against Guatemala, has already ruled that the use of such amnesty for gross human rights violations contravene the American Convention on Human Rights.

"This trial is of a fundamental importance for the future of Guatemala. It is necessary that the Guatemalan government take all necessary measures to ensure the integrity of the proceedings and the safety of witnesses, victims, human rights defenders and lawyers" said Manuel Ollé, Spanish lawyer, trial observer on behalf of FIDH .

The FIDH international trial observation will be undertaken by various international experts to assess compliance with international standards.

"It’s been a long road but this case is required to launch a real transition towards a society where the rights of all Guatemalans are respected" noted lawyer Edgar Perez, of AJR. "For the world, this is a sign that any peace process must necessarily be accompanied by justice mechanisms. The silence imposed, even if it lasts decades, can not stifle the demands for justice for serious human rights violations."

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