Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Too Strange for Words -- Re-reading Genocide Charges, Re-starting the Trial

Too strange for words, to hear once more the reasons for the charge of genocide read in the grand courtroom, five weeks after they were first articulated on Mar. 19, opening day of the landmark trial.  After a judge from another court caused the process halted on a technicality on April 18, the trial went into suspension.  When it opened again on April 30, certain changes had been made from the day it stopped, so the charge had to be restated.  
The same accused sit at the defense table, former head of state Gen. José Efraín Rios Montt and his intelligence chief, Gen. Mauricio Rodriguez.  What’s different this time: more than 120 witnesses have already testified, so that each time elements of the genocide charge rang out -- “sexual violence, individual and collective,” “burning of houses, schools”-- the images of witnesses who testified to them arose in the mind, their voices heard once more.  
The women allowed to partially hide their identities, heads covered with cloths woven in shades of red, speaking in Ixil through an interpreter, their draped figures ramrod straight as if to endure the recounting without folding in two, or shaking.  The man of age 70 who cried for his parents. 
Once again, Gen. José Efraín Rios Montt, fit-looking at age 86, walked to the witness stand to state the details of his identification, place of birth.  Survivors stared, faces 
grim. The presiding trial judge, Jazmín Barrios, spoke clearly, denying defense requests that would have caused delays or another suspension.   Once again, the trial was on.

 In a chilling image by photographer Estuardo Paredes that appeared in today’s Prensa Libre, a Guatemala City daily, Judge Barrios is seen walking from her chambers sans jacket, revealing a bullet-proof vest.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Genocide Trial -- In the Streets, and the Land's Highest Court

The day began (for me) with a twitter photo posted by a local radio station from a listener who took a shot of a bus with a mantle saying, "Hairy hippies and foreigners: Don't make money with the lie of genocide of Ixil people in Nebaj." When I caught up, buses were discharging hundreds onto a main thoroughfare.  The indigenous Maya wore the distinctive clothing of the biggest town of the Ixil triangle, Nebaj. Thousands died in the region during the administration (1982-1983) of Guatemalan Gen. José Efrain Rios Montt, who has been on trial for genocide until proceedings were suspended last week on a technicality.

The take-away message from hours spent with the demonstrators was that development, and the process to obtain reparations for damages suffered during the war, were being sidetracked by the genocide trial.  There was no genocide, but rather the inevitable, lamentable suffering brought about by both armed groups, guerrilla and army.  The international community came in for special venom as manipulators of the tragedy, for its efforts to support the trial.
"Donors, quit financing manipulators."
"International Community: It's a lie to say that there was genocide in Nebaj."

"I am Ixil and I want to be a witness," said printed signs handed out near the Torre de Reforma. From there participants walked about half a mile to the Supreme Court, and later in the morning, another mile to the Constitutional Court.  Inside, magistrates were considering a ruling on whether the trial would go forward. 

 Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, President of the Foundation Against Terrorism, which includes former army officers and others against the genocide trial, at the march.

By day's end Constitutional Court spokesman Martín Guzman delivered the magistrates' decision supporting a judge's decision last week to "annul" the present trial, handing reporters a 45-page document. Referring to where the trial goes from here, Guzman said several times, "It's complex." The following days are expected to bring some clarity as to whether the trial goes forth in any form.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cloud of Uncertainty over Genocide Trial

In a change from the air of flying sparks last week at the Guatemala genocide trial, when the entire defense team walked off in protest at judge’s rulings to leave Gen. Efrain Rios Montt and Gen. Mauricio Rodriguez alone at the table, a judge from another court “nullified” the trial, and the genocide trial judge refused to accept the cancellation in front of a full house of spectators, a slow-growing cloud of uncertainty has fallen over proceedings.  The Supreme Court room that seats 500 where the trial has been unfolding, sits empty.  

Ten blocks away, in sessions closed to all but magistrates, the Constitutional Court must decide whether the trial continues.  Survivors and supporters of Ixil Maya at the center of the genocide charge demonstrated outside the Constitutional Court building to pressure magistrates inside to come to a decision, to dissipate the cloud. Many wore buttons saying, “My heart is Ixil.”  
Women held up a kind of quilt made by family members to memorialize their dead and disappeared. 


Photos of some of the murdered, and other photos from the 1980s by Jean-Marie Simon were placed in public space outside the court. Following the culmination of a countrywide traveling exhibit in 2011, financed by the U.S. Embassy via former Ambassador Steven McFarland, Simon donated two sets of images to Guatemalan organizations. “They have put them to hugely good use,” said the photographer in an email. 
The Constitutional Court has until May 2 to deliver a decision on whether the trial continues, but may deliver its answer before that date.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Genocide Trial Most Tumultuous Week Yet


Daughter supports mother, a widow whose husband was killed  in  the violence.

Witnesses for the defense of Gen. Efraín Rios Montt testified that life improved for indigenous Maya when he came into office in March, 1982, in the mountainous Ixil region.
Left, Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, which published a 20-page newspaper insert on Sunday calling the genocide charge a "farce" and blamed a "Marxist" Catholic Church for sowing the seeds of violence with "revolutionary" theology.  Second from left, Zulema Paz de Rodriguez, wife of Rios co-defendant, former military intelligence chief Mauricio Rodriguez.  Third from left,  Zury Rios Sosa, former Guatemalan congress member and the strongman's daughter who married former Congressman Jerry Weller (R-IL) in 2004.  Right, unidentified companion of Zury Rios.

Spectators listened with stony faces in the packed courtroom. 

 Some 200,000, mostly unarmed indigenous, died during the armed internal conflict according to an estimate by a U.N.-sponsored truth commission. In a theatrical departure, defense attorneys abandoned the courtroom in protest at proceedings on the morning of April 18.
Alone at defense table, Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt
Security was unable or unwilling to bring them back despite orders from the bench, or perhaps armed guards were unable to hear the order  in the ensuing hubbub.
Spectators and press in a crush to enter a separate, smaller courtroom where another judge "annulled" the trial going on in the Supreme Court Building

That afternoon a judge from another court ordered the trial halted. On the morning of April 19, however, the trial's presiding judge reiterated the tribunal's "independence," declared the previous day's order illegal and said the trial would continue.  Before exiting the court the three judges stood and acknowledged elated applause from the courtroom. "The tribunal appreciates your confidence in the justice system," said tribunal president, Jasmįn Barrios.

Survivors and others left the Supreme Court building for a demonstration and mile-long march to the Constitutional Court, where prosecutors filed a  formal request for review of the judge who ordered the trial annulled.

Here are two stories I've published in the last week about the genocide trial.
 National Catholic Reporter
New America Media

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sexual Violence at Genocide Trial

Judge Jasmín Barrios said the sexual violence session of the Rios Montt genocide trial today must be public, but that it was permissible for witnesses to cover their faces. All so far have done so, except for the one male witness, Pedro Cobo, who had gone down to the riverbank the day soldiers killed villagers to look for his parents, brothers and sisters. "My mother was nude," he said. "The river was full of blood."

Seated left, former military intelligence chief, Mauricio Sanchez Rodriguez.  Seated right former president Efrain Rios Montt.  Both defendants in genocide case.

Seated at table second from right, defendant Gen. Efrain Rios Montt

Interpreter and witness
Spectators.  Front row.