The ongoing saga in the trial of former Guatemala strongman Efraín Ríos Montt could soon make its way to the United States as prosecutors in the case plan to present a petition at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington to reinforce his conviction on genocide charges.
Ríos Montt, the former dictator who presided over one of the bloodiest chapters of Guatemala’s civil war that killed some 200,000 people, mainly indigenous Mayans, during the 1980s, was sentenced to 80 years in prison earlier this year in a trial where Ixil Mayans testified about mass rapes, the killings of women and children, and other atrocities that authorities had often denied took place.
But Guatemala’s constitutional court soon threw out the conviction and ordered a repeat of the trial.
The country’s Supreme Court in June than rejected a motion to quash the prosecution of the erstwhile strongman, finding that the 1986 amnesty does not extend to genocide and crimes against humanity.
The retrial of Rios Montt is scheduled for April 2014, but many are skeptical if it will even take place given Ríos Montt’s poor health and the constitutional court ruling that the trial should restart from a late stage in the evidence.
"We hope to get a decision handed down [from the Inter-American Commission] that will put pressure on the national courts so that we can get back to the [80-year] sentence," Edgar Pérez, the lead Guatemalan prosecutor told the Guardian newspaper. "The original trial is in a state of indecision."
For its part, the IACHR requested late last month that Guatemala investigate the human rights violations that took place during the country’s civil war and that the country’s amnesty law doesn't impede on the process.
“The Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have repeatedly ruled that provisions of any kind – legislative, administrative or others – that impede the investigation and punishment of those responsible for serious human rights violations are incompatible with human rights obligations,” the IACHR said in a press release.
Ríos Montt seized power in a March 23, 1982 coup, and ruled until he himself was overthrown just over a year later. Prosecutors say that while in power he was aware of, and thus responsible for, the slaughter by subordinates of at least 1,771 Ixil Mayas in San Juan Cotzal, San Gaspar Chajul and Santa Maria Nebaj, towns in the Quiche department of Guatemala's western highlands.
Those military offensives were part of a brutal, decades-long counterinsurgency against a leftist uprising that brought massacres in the Mayan heartland where the guerrillas were based.
A U.N. truth commission said state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the killings and human rights violations that it documented, committed mostly against indigenous Maya. Yet until now, only low or middle-level officials have been prosecuted for war atrocities.
Prosecutors argued earlier this year that Ríos Montt must have had knowledge of the massacres of Mayan Indians when he ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983. The three-judge panel essentially concluded in May that the massacres followed the same pattern, showing they had been planned, something that would not be possible without the approval of the military command, which Ríos Montt headed.
Ríos Montt had said he never knew of or ordered the massacres while in power. A co-defendant, Jose Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, a 68-year-old former general who was a high-ranking member of the military chiefs of staff during Ríos Montt's administration, was acquitted.
Along with Ríos Montt, five former soldiers were each sentenced to 6,060 years in prison two years ago for the 1982 Dos Erres massacre in which villagers were buried alive.
"We uncovered official documents from this period which shows there was a plan to exterminate the Ixil people," Pérez said. "The documents said that the military objective was to annihilate the enemy and that the Ixil people supported the guerrilla groups." The Ixils, it was argued, should therefore be targeted.”
Efe contributed to this report.