From Genocide to Justice in Guatemala: Despite Conviction of Former General for Genocide, Human Rights Are Still At Risk in Guatemala

Statement by Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service on the Conviction of former General José Efraín Ríos Montt

New York, NY; May 13, 2013—

“We are deeply gratified that former Guatemalan dictator, General José Efraín Ríos Montt, was found guilty of genocide in the very country in which he committed his crimes and presided over a reign of terror. The brutal murder of almost 200,000 indigenous Mayan people, and the destruction of countless indigenous families and communities by Guatemala’s military dictatorship over several decades, is a crime that demanded redress. Despite this historic conviction, the human rights of Guatemala’s people—and those who advocate for them—are at risk today and must be defended.

“The conviction of Ríos Montt in a Guatemalan court of law is a major milestone for a country in which human rights are still too frequently violated. It must be noted that the Constitutional Court of Guatemala has played a crucial role in advancing the rule of law. While our hopes for Guatemala are bolstered by this conviction, we understand that much work remains to be done to defend the human rights of all people in Guatemala and to secure the safety of human rights defenders there, whose security and lives are often under threat.

“We remain gravely concerned about the safety of our partners in Guatemala who participated in building the legal case against Ríos Montt and who have felt forced to take security measures to protect themselves against reprisals at this crucial moment.

“We urge the world community to remain vigilant in the wake of this conviction against reprisals by the military and right-wing forces against human rights defenders in Guatemala, and we urge President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to do all they can to ensure that this conviction is not used to turn the clock back on human rights in Guatemala.

“We honor the persistent and concerted efforts of organized groups in Guatemalan civil society to demand justice in the wake of a long and bloody civil war, and we urge the Guatemalan government to take the necessary measures to provide comprehensive reparations to the Mayan indigenous people.

“Most importantly, our thoughts and prayers are with all who lost their loved ones and suffered during the decades-long civil war and genocide in Guatemala. While legal justice cannot restore their loved ones to life or reconstitute the communities and families that they lost, it is a crucial step in moving forward in building a just Guatemala.”

Background on the Guatemalan Genocide and Ríos Montt Trial

The civil war in Guatemala began in 1960 and lasted for 36 years, ending in 1996. During this time entire villages were exterminated, and more than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians, were killed or “went missing.” In January 2013, former general José Efraín Ríos Montt—who took power in a 1982 coup and was toppled the following year—became the first former president to be charged with genocide by a Latin American court. Ríos Montt is a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, a U.S.-run training center that counts many Latin American dictators among its alumnae, including the current Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina.

For 15 years, while serving as a member of the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala, Ríos Montt held immunity from prosecution for crimes against humanity. After losing his seat, he was put under house arrest in January of 2012. The trial against Ríos Montt and his chief of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez, began on March 19, 2013.

Guatemala’s history of persecution, violence, and assassination of human rights defenders made for a truly treacherous environment for providing testimony against the infamous ex-general. Nevertheless, hundreds of witnesses and survivors of the atrocities gave testimony to the massacres, forced displacements, rape and sexual violence.

AJWS in Guatemala

AJWS, an international human rights and development organization, provides financial and other support to human rights organizations Guatemala.

Since 2000, one such organization, Unidad de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos en Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), has been monitoring the persecution of human rights defenders and has reported almost 2,500 cases of violence directed at them, to date. UDEFEGUA helps at-risk human rights defenders, community leaders and their organizations to prevent and respond to security threats through education, monitoring and psychosocial support.

At this crucial moment, UDEFEGUA is calling upon government institutions and the international community to protect Guatemalan human rights defenders against reprisals for Ríos Montt’s conviction. UDEFEGUA is working to protect witnesses, lawyers and defenders who testified in the trial against the human rights abuses committed during the civil war. In fact, UDEFEGUA’s staff has already experienced retaliation for their work to protect witnesses. On April 18, 2013, only a month into the trial against Ríos Montt, the organization’s office in Guatemala City was broken into and vandalized.

UDEFEGUA’s work is courageous and challenging.  It is crucial for advancing the civil and political rights of marginalized communities in Guatemala and for ensuring a more secure environment in which witnesses can tell their stories without recrimination.

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