Nation & World

Rios Montt genocide plaintiffs seek international help after Guatemala court delays trial to 2015

Representatives of Guatemala’s indigenous Ixil Maya have filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in Washington accusing the Guatemalan government of failing in its legal obligation to investigate and prosecute genocide.

The petition, which was filed Wednesday, was in response to an order by one of Guatemala’s highest courts requiring a lower court to consider amnesty for former President Efraim Rios Montt, whose forces conducted a bloody campaign against Guatemalan indigenous groups in the early 1980s.

“We presented a petition . . . because we want Guatemala to be held accountable for the crimes committed against the Ixil people,” said Marcia Aguiluz of the Center for Justice and International Law. “We want the Inter-American system to give a judgment that Guatemala must investigate and judge these people.”

Prosecuting Rios Montt for what took place during his rule has been a challenge from the beginning. The lead Guatemalan prosecutor on the case, Edgar Perez, has received multiple death threats. Since August 2010 he has traveled with nearly constant protection provided by the human rights group Peace Brigades International, which said it has thwarted a number of attempts on his life, including an attempt to tamper with the brakes on his car.

Rios Montt, 87, was convicted in May of genocide against the Ixil people. Over a two-year period in the early 1980s, as many as 95 percent of Ixil villages were razed and several thousand people, roughly 5.5 percent of the Ixil population, were killed.

But Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the conviction 10 days later and ordered a retrial, which was expected in early 2014. In October, the Constitutional Court ordered the lower court to reconsider whether Rios Montt was eligible for a 1986 amnesty, even though a subsequent Guatemalan law and international law says such amnesties did not apply to crimes against humanity.

A final blow came Tuesday, when the Constitutional Court informed plaintiffs in the genocide case that there could be no retrial until early 2015 because the court’s calendar is full for 2014.

Advocates of trying Rios Montt expressed concern that he might die before further legal action takes place.

“There are, of course, concerns about unjustified delays,” said Roxanna Altholz, associate director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California’s Berkeley Law School. “Rios Montt is an older man, and these crimes occurred over 30 years ago.”

“The truth is that we can’t wait longer,” said Aguiluz. “The judges have all of the information; they could move the agenda, but this is just further evidence that they are not taking it seriously.”

The petition presented to the Inter-American Commission seeks an expedited “judgment against Guatemala that obliges them to judge the persons that are responsible,” Aguiluz said. The plaintiffs also are seeking reparations that would compel the Guatemalan government to address the tendency of the justice system to delay trials, avoid investigations and favor amnesty in cases of crimes against humanity.

The Inter-American system is complicated, however. First, Guatemala must respond to the charges. Then the Inter-American Commission must decide to refer the petition to the Inter-American Court. If the case is deemed admissible, the Inter-American Court is then able to issue a binding ruling, which could include international condemnation of Guatemala if the country does not fulfill its legal obligations. A typical case in the Inter-American system takes three to seven years from start to finish.