On January 28, 2013, a Guatemalan judge ordered ex-military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt to stand trial, rejecting an amnesty law brought forward by his defence team. During Guatemala's civil war, Ríos Montt oversaw mass rape and other crimes against humanity aiming to exterminate the Indigenous Maya population in the Ixil region. Ríos Montt held immunity from prosecution for 15 years as he served in Congress. Evidence against him includes: forced displacement of 29,000 people, killing of 1,771 in 11 massacres, torture, and 1,485 acts of sexual violence.
During pre-trial hearings, the judge received evidence that included the testimony of Ana López, an Ixil woman who was kidnapped from her home by soldiers and tortured and raped for 10 days at a government outpost in 1982.
Sexual violence against women and girls was widespread in Guatemala's 36-year civil war which lasted from 1960 until peace agreements were signed in 1996. An estimated 100,000 women were raped during the war.
Campaign member and Women Under Siege director Lauren Wolfe explains that achieving the investigation and legal indictment of Ríos Montt was a long and difficult process.
The trial will now set a precedent for prosecuting genocide and state violence in post-conflict countries. This is the first time a national court system prosecutes its former head of state. It is "an extraordinary break with impunity" applauded by many survivors of Guatemala's civil war, including Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum.
Resistance is expected as the trial proceeds in late March. Human rights abuses, including sexual violence against women, continues to be met with impunity in Guatemala today.
Guatemala's first woman Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who is determined to stop gender violence, told Wolfe and others on a fact-finding delegation that bringing Ríos Montt to justice is an important step:
"For the first time, a judge said these rapes occurred. For these women it's like saying they have a real voice. It becomes finally clear that this is something that is not allowed, specifically."
Wading uncharted waters: The trials of Rios Montt, Al Jazeera, 4 February 2013.
Guatemalan former dictator to stand trial, The Guardian, 29 January 2013.
Accused of Atrocities, Guatemala's Ex-Dictator Chooses Silence, The New York Times, 26 January 2013.
Reckoning with a genocide in Guatemala, Women Under Siege blog, 10 February 2012.