From Our Members: Activists on the Rios Montt Trial in Guatemala

Guest Post by Campaign Member Sarah Tofte

In recent months, Guatemala has undertaken the landmark step of putting its former President, Efrain Rios Montt on trial for genocide--the first time a head of state has faced such charges in a domestic court.

Using military records, forensic evidence, and witness testimony, prosecutors have detailed the widespread human rights abuses against Ixil Mayans perpetrated during Rios Montt's presidency from 1982-1983. Survivors have testified to massacres, forced displacement, and sexual violence during the time.

The trial itself faced a setback as it neared conclusion, when a judge ordered its annulment. Another judge hearing the case deemed the order illegal and suspended proceedings while the Constitutional Court considered a ruling.

On the heels of a statement by seven Nobel Peace Laureates in defense of the continuation of the trial, Campaign member the Nobel Women's Initiative, hosted a press call with Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Kate Doyle, who runs the Guatemala Project for the National Security Archives, Pamela Yates, Oscar-Award-Winning Director of the documentary "When the Mountains Tremble," and Claudia Samayoa, the director of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit in Guatemala.

As has become evident over the course of the trial, crucial evidence has survived over the thirty year period that has helped build the prosecutions case. This includes film archives containing first-hand interviews with Rios Montt during his presidency and the meticulously documented military orders which included field reports detailing the killing and bombing of communities.

Yates, whose outtakes from a 1982 interview with Rios Montt helped establish his "command and control" of the field officers carrying out the genocide on the ground, described the testimony of survivors of sexual violence—one the most powerful moments of the trial, “When the victims of rape approached to testify, they used colored cloths to cover their face for privacy. To show their solidarity, Guatemalan feminists came out in mass during the women's testimony, wearing the same colored cloths over their own faces, to show their solidarity." 

Samayoa explained that many of the women continue to face stigma for their testimony, "some of them had to come back to their husbands, who did not know the extent of the violence against them, and that is hard." Still, Samayoa noted that through this process, the communities realized that when it comes to rape, "the women have not committed any crime, they are not guilty of anything, and we should be very proud of them." 

Many witnesses face serious consequences for testifying. Samayoa's group has documented a significant increase in threats against human rights defenders in the country since the trial. In 2012, her group recorded 313 attacks. In this year alone, they have documented 326 attacks--258 from March and April alone. The attacks occur in a variety of ways: pamphlets denouncing the work of the trial inserted in newspapers; e-mails of pictures of skulls, warning the recipient that they are next to be killed; radio calls to kill and lynch human rights defenders; and in-person threats. Menchu Tum noted that she had faced threats during the trial, as had the prosecutor and judge in the case. Last week, Samayoa's offices were broken into and ransacked. 

While Guatemala and observers wait for the ruling of the Constitutional Court on whether the case will be annulled, Menchu Tum noted that now is the time "to rally around these women defenders and support them. That is the most important thing we can do at this moment."

Each activist noted that even if justice was delayed again, the process had already begun an important discussion within Guatemala’s society. Samayoa explained, "A lot of people, especially the youngsters, didn't know about the genocide before this. We are now having a discussion with them about what happened, and this discussion is healthy for us. As a result of this process, we reaffirm that indigenous people have rights, have human rights." 

Learn More

Menchu Tum and activists say Rios Montt trial must continue, Nobel Women's Initiative

Nobel Laureates call for case against Rios Montt to proceed in Guatemala, Nobel Women's Initiative

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The International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict
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