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Access to Justice

Celebrating life in Guatemala one year on from the historic genocide trial

By Sally O’Neill, Head of Region, Latin America
“We truly believe that in order for peace to exist in Guatemala, justice must come first.” With these words on the 10 May 2013 Judge Yasmin Barrios closed the historic case against former president Jose Efrain Ríos Montt who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Ixil indigenous people. 
It was the first time the Guatemalan state had recognised that genocide was committed in Guatemala.
Trócaire has been supporting and accompanying indigenous communities and human rights defenders since the darkest days of the conflict in the early 1980s, when a ‘scorched earth’ strategy was implemented by the army in hundreds of Ixil communities. 
An estimated 200,000 were murdered or disappeared during the conflict, 83% of whom were indigenous people. 
The genocide of the Ixil community was the most extreme expression of an ideology of racism that had festered at the core of the state; they were deemed an ‘internal enemy’ that must be ‘annihilated.’  
Our partners, the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH) and the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), have worked tirelessly over the last 14 years to protect the rights of those affected by the conflict and to seek justice for victims and survivors. 
They continue to denounce crimes of the past and present and have brought a number of cases against former army personnel and agents of the state for crimes committed during the conflict, most significantly the case against Ríos Montt. 
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Top: Attendees at the trial of Ríos Montt. Bottom: Ríos Montt testifies in court. Photos: Elena Hermosa.
Survivors of the genocide, witnesses from the trial, human rights defenders, members of the international community, civil society organisations, students, academics and ordinary citizens gathered together to celebrate the first anniversary of the trial. 
On Friday afternoon a number of European solidarity networks presented AJR with a plaque in recognition of their courageous contribution to the struggle for justice in Guatemala. 
These groups included the International NGO Forum in Guatemala (FONGI), the international alliance of Catholic development agencies (CIDSE), the Copenhagen Initiative for Central America and Mexico (CIFCA), the Association of World Council of Churches related Development Organisations in Europe (APRODEV), ACT Alliance and the International Platform Against Impunity.
Hundreds of people gathered in the main square of Guatemala’s capital for the ‘Festival of Life’ to celebrate this historical victory for victims and survivors of the conflict. Young musicians and performers entertained the crowds and were accompanied by live broadcasts of key excerpts from Yasmin Barrios’ judgment. 
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Delegation from AJR accepts plaque for contribution to peace and justice. Photo: Aisling Walsh.
These acts of local and international solidarity are particularly important given recent attempts by powerful sectors of Guatemalan society to block, and even reverse recent progress towards justice and reconciliation. 
Only 10 days after the original judgment was handed down the Constitutional Court overturned the guilty verdict on the pretext of procedural irregularities during the trial, and set a date for retrial for January 2015. 
Since then there have been further moves to disrupt the course of justice: in January 2014 the Court of Appeal decided to revert to the original case presented in November 2011, at which time Ríos Montt had not been formally accused. 
Our partners, CALDH and ARJ are extremely concerned that this decision would effectively annul the trial held in 2013 and could lead to Ríos Montt being exempt from a retrial in the genocide case. 
In February 2014 the Guatemalan Constitutional Court took the unanimous decision to dismiss the current Attorney General and Chief State Prosecutor six months before the completion of her full term in office. She presided over the Ríos Montt trial and has been active in pursuing cases of femicide, violence against women and corruption. 
Furthermore, in April 2014 only one month following her receipt of Michelle Obama’s Women of Courage Award, Judge Yasmin Barrios was suspended from practice for one year by the College of Lawyers in Guatemala. Fortunately, Judge Barrios successfully challenged her suspension and has resumed her duties.  
Despite these attempts to reverse the progress towards justice in Guatemala, the words of Yasmin Barrios from 10 May last year will not be easily forgotten and the search for peace and justice will not be abandoned:
“We firmly believe that acknowledging the truth helps to heal the wounds of the past and [that] the pursuit of justice is a right of the victims, which also contributes to the strengthening of the rule of law in our country. [We] must raise aware¬ness [so] that these kinds of events are never repeated, because the people of Guatemala want to live in peace, acknowledging our identity, our rich multicultural, multilingual [heritage] and the respect for the freedom of expression of our ideas.” 

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