Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Justice for Genocide in the Guatemalan Highlands

In downtown Guatemala City, graffiti can be found on the walls of buildings reading "justicia por genocidio" (justice for genocide).
Photo taken by author

From 1981 - 1983, over 1,700 of the indigenous Ixil Maya population of Guatemala were massacred.  On trial for the genocide of this ethnic group is former president and military ruler General Efrain Rios Montt.

General Montt is the first former head of state to be charged with genocide in his own country. Montt was convicted in 2013 of genocide, however his case was annulled less than two weeks after his conviction. Judge Patricia Flores had ordered the trial suspended due to unconstitutional procedural errors during the evidentiary phase of the trial. When judge Jazmin Barrios continued with proceedings, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, Montt's lawyer, accused her of being impartial and he was consequently dismissed from the courtroom. Montt subsequently spent half a day in court without his lawyer, prompting Guatemala's highest courts to set aside the verdict and order a retrial.

It took 19 months for the new trial to begin, yet political maneuvers have already hamstrung proceedings. On the first day of the trial, Montt's legal team demanded that Irma Valdez, the presiding judge, recuse herself, arguing her doctoral dissertation, "Criteria for the better application of the crime of genocide," indicated she had already formed an opinion and was incapable of impartiality. Valdes was disqualified by her peers in a 2-1 vote. This is only one instance of what many rights group claim is political interference designed to block prosecution of Montt. Paz y Pazy, the attorney general who indicted Montt, was ordered by the court to resign months before her term was set to expire. Not long after, Yassmin Barrios, the judge who handed down the initial guilty verdict against Montt and who was also awarded  an International Woman of Courage award by Michelle Obama, was suspended by the Guatemalan Bar Association from practicing law for a year due to alleged ethical violations. Local Guatemalan newspapers deemed this action as "excessive" and "without precedent."

Some are even skeptical that the massacre of the Ixil Maya can be called genocide. Former vice-president Eduardo Stein has claimed that "The human-rights violations were not directed specifically against an ethnic group but against all who were perceived to support the guerrillas." Professor Carlos Sabino of Francisco Morroquin University in Guatemala acknowledges that the killings occurred but balks at labeling the killings genocide, stating there was "no intention to exterminate a particular race."

Documented evidence suggest otherwise, however. Article II of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which Guatemala signed on June 22, 1949 and ratified on January 13, 1950, defines genocide as:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: 
  • killing members of the group;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life intended to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group...

As Greg Grandin notes in his book The Guatemala Reader, proceedings from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia state that "the intentionality specific to the crime of genocide does not need to be expressed clearly; it can be inferred from a certain number of facts, such as the 'general political doctrine' from which actions arise... and the repetition of destructive and discriminatory acts." 

What's important to note here is the phrasing "general political doctrine from which actions arise." General Montt's Victoria 82 military plan clearly illustrates that Montt identified indigenous communities with guerrilla forces. Grandin points out that in the 1980s, indigenous people were outright identified with the enemy. According to Victoria 82,

The great Indian masses of the nation's highlands have heard themselves in the subversion's proclamations, with their banners of land scarcity and immense poverty, and due to the long years of consciousness raising, [these populations] see the Army as an invading enemy... The army considered that the "great Indian masses" of the highlands made up the social base of the guerrilla movement: Strong points... of the enemy.. its social base, resting on the Indian peasant.
 Montt went on to confirm this identification of the indigenous Ixil with elimination:

The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators, therefore the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion...

To have a judge recuse herself because she is expert not only in genocide but also in the Guatemalan civil war is asinine given that the question at hand should not be whether or not genocide was committed. As historical records document, it clearly has. The issue is whether or not Montt ordered the systematic slaughter of an ethnic group he deemed to be collaborating with guerrilla fighters during the Guatemalan civil war. It is paramount for a member of the three-judge tribunal to be expert in matters relating to genocide so that emotion and rationality can be separated and the evidence and facts can be judged objectively. Removing justice Valdes for being educated in Guatemalan history and the crime of genocide is counterproductive for the healing of Guatemala. 14.5% of the Ixil population (and 14.6% of the Rabinal, 3.6% of the Huehuetenango, and 8.6% of the Zacualpa) was killed and a lack of judges knowledgeable on not only the actions carried out during the Guatemalan civil war but also the complex legalities on acts of genocide is a great miscarriage of justice.

No comments:

Post a Comment