Former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt’s conviction for genocide is annulled by the High Court. The country’s constitutional court then upholds the annulment and orders a retrial. By JOHN CHERIAN

IN A landmark decision, a three-member judicial panel on May 10 convicted General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, the former military dictator of Guatemala, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The verdict was welcomed widely in the country and all over Latin America. Rios Montt was promptly hauled to prison, albeit for a few days. Ten days later, the nation’s High Court annulled the lower court’s conviction, triggering a political controversy that has reverberated throughout the region. Upholding the High Court’s verdict, the country’s constitutional court ordered a retrial in the case.

Rios Montt has enjoyed a larger-than-life image in Guatemala. He ruled the country from March 1982 to August 1983 after seizing power in a military coup, and played an important role in the country’s politics since then. The lower court held the general complicit in the murder of at least 1,771 Ixil Indians (indigenous Guatemalans) during his rule, considered the most brutal phase of the 36-year-long civil war that wrecked the country. A peace accord signed in Oslo in 1996 brought an end to the civil war, which many Guatemalans saw as racist in which the marginalised indigenous people were pitted against a white-dominated elite.

It was the first time that a former head of state in Latin America was actually sentenced to life on charges of genocide by a court in his own country. The former Argentine military ruler Jorge Videla was sentenced to life, not on the charge of genocide but for his role in the killing of 31 dissidents when the country was under military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Videla died in the Marcos Paz prison on May 17 at the age of 87 while serving his sentence.

The judicial tribunal in Guatemala City, after painstakingly hearing testimony from survivors of the massacres for over two months, sentenced Rios Montt to 80 years in prison. It was the first official acknowledgement that genocide had taken place in the country on a wide scale. Announcing the ruling, Judge Yasmin Barrios declared that Rios Montt “was responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide”. The court found that Rios Montt “had knowledge of what was happening and did nothing to stop it”. Reading out the judgment, Barrios said: “For there to be peace in Guatemala, first there must be justice.” The court pointed out that more than 5 per cent of the Ixil Maya population had been exterminated in counter–insurgency operations. It came to the conclusion that the state at the time viewed the Ixils as “public enemies” and maintained that they were “victims of racism, considered an inferior race”.

Among the countless Guatemalans who lost their loved ones in the genocide is the Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. Almost all her immediate family was slaughtered by the military, including her parents and her siblings. She described the initial guilty verdict against Rios Montt as path-breaking. “The verdict is historic, it’s monumental. We waited for 33 years for justice to prevail. It is clear that there will be no peace without justice,” she said.

The decision to annul Rios Montt’s conviction has come as a crushing blow to survivors of the atrocities and human rights groups that had worked tirelessly braving violence and death threats in order to see justice prevail. But as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence has said: “No legal decision is inconsequential, even if overruled.” The Inter-American Court of Justice issued a statement criticising the verdict of the higher courts in Guatemala for violating international obligations assumed by the state and preventing the people from seeking justice.

Successive governments in Guatemala had denied that genocide had taken place. The current President, Otto Perez Molina, is no exception. He, too, strongly maintained that there were no gross human rights violations during the prolonged civil war in the Central American country, which is one of the poorest in the region. More than 200,000 people were killed in the conflict. Witnesses at the Rios Montt trial identified Perez Molina, who was a young military officer in the 1980s, as one of the perpetrators of the mass killings of the Ixil community. According to a witness, who was then serving in the army, Perez Molina directed the atrocities under the assumed name of Maj. Tito Arias. Perez Molina has denied the allegations but has admitted that during the insurgency he was operating in Ixil territory under a false name.

Therefore, it was not surprising that a few days after the historic judgment was delivered, the country’s constitutional court, on specious legal grounds, overturned the decision and ordered that the trial be resumed once again. The three-member tribunal has been replaced by a ruling of the High Court. Hector Reyes, a prominent Guatemalan lawyer and human rights activist, said the decision of the constitutional court “lacks any foundation in law”. Legal and political activists say it will be difficult to find a new three-judge panel to preside over the rescheduled case. The previous Bench had received death threats from right-wing groups, which are unhappy that they are sought to be brought to account for the atrocities committed in the 1970s and 1980s. Hundreds of witnesses, who had recounted their experiences of rape, torture and murder to the court, will be loath to do so again in the full glare of the media.

Rios Montt, 86, is now assured of spending the rest of his life in comfortable retirement. Thousands of people in Guatemala City and other capitals in Latin America staged protests against the decision of the constitutional court and the stand of the Guatemalan government. The Barack Obama administration, which had initially supported the Rios Montt trial, has been ambivalent after the dubious decision of the constitutional court. The United States State Department spokesperson said “a complex, unprecedented legal situation” had arisen in Guatemala. At the same time, the official demanded that all sides “respect the rule of law” and “ensure equal justice for all”.

Roots of insurgency

The Guatemalan civil war, one of the most brutal wars witnessed in Latin America, took place between an American-supported right-wing authoritarian government and forces representing the peasantry and the working class. The roots of the insurgency can be traced to the American intervention in the internal affairs of the country, beginning with the overthrow of the democratically elected President, Jacob Arbenz, in 1954.

Guatemala had started implementing land reforms and instituting meaningful democratic reforms when the U.S. decided to intervene to preserve the banana plantations owned by American corporations. The Guatemalan army and vigilante groups were armed and trained by the U.S. Millions of dollars in military assistance was given despite a U.S. congressional ban. During his long career in the army and later on in civilian politics, Rios Montt, like other right-wing military dictators who had come to power in the region with Washington’s blessings to crush left-wing movements, steadfastly denied any wrongdoing on his part.

Like Videla and Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Rios Montt, too, claimed that what he had done was for the national good and to save the country from the threat posed by mass movements, including that of Christian Liberation theology, which were inspired by the Left. Even citizens who harboured sympathies for the opposition were targeted by the military and its death squads. Tens of thousands of people simply disappeared. According to recently declassified U.S. State Department documents, the Ronald Reagan administration was well aware of the extrajudicial killings. Rios Montt, when he was at the helm of affairs, had dared to proclaim to the Guatemalan people that “if you are with us, we will feed you, if not, we will kill you”.

The military regime started with the blessings of counter-insurgency experts from Washington and American Christian evangelical groups—a “guns and beans” approach. Rios Montt himself is a “born again” evangelical Christian in a predominantly Catholic country. Under the “guns and beans” campaign, guerilla fighters who surrendered were housed and fed. Those who did not were eliminated ruthlessly as the army unleashed a “scorched-earth policy” in the areas under the control of the rebels. Much before the recent verdict, a U.N.-backed historical commission had concluded that the government led by Rios Montt was responsible for “deliberate acts of genocide” against the indigenous people. A Truth Commission sponsored by the U.N. in 1999 found that 93 per cent of the killings were perpetrated by the military, 3 per cent by the insurgents, and 4 per cent by undetermined parties.

President Reagan made it a point to visit Guatemala City in 1982 when Rios Montt was the President. Reagan declared Rios Montt a man “who wants to improve the life of all Guatemalans and to promote social justice”. The Reagan administration lavishly funded the Rios Montt government and provided military aid despite a top-secret Central Intelligence Agency report detailing the mass killings of civilians by the Guatemalan army. Many of the State Department officials who were active in Guatemala then, such as Elliott Abrams and Richard MacFarlane, are still alive and could be held accountable for the “crimes against humanity” that Rios Montt was found guilty of. The other major supplier of arms and advisers to Guatemalan army was Israel. Rios Montt, at the time, was also engaged in destabilising the Sandinista government in neighbouring Nicaragua, which had just overthrown another long-serving pro-American dictator—the corrupt Anastasio Somoza.

Another U.S. President, Bill Clinton, however, did apologise in a way for his country’s support to the Guatemalan government when Rios Montt and the military ran the show. “For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong and the United States must not repeat that mistake,” Clinton said in 1999. In the same year, the Guatemalan President at the time, Alfonso Portillo, admitted that the Guatemalan government was responsible for serious human rights abuses in the previous 20 years, including the massacres of the Mayan Indians during the Rios Montt presidency.

In an interesting postscript, Portillo himself was extradited to the U.S. in the third week of May by the Guatemalan government to face money-laundering charges relating to the looting of state finances totalling more than $70 million. This is the first time a former Latin American head of state has been extradited to the U.S. to face criminal charges. The extradition has been widely viewed as an attempt by the Guatemalan government to divert domestic and international attention from the Rios Montt case.