By Elena Hermosa, Human Rights and Governance
A tense silence gripped the room as Judge Jazmin Barrios began to read the verdict. Then, the word people had waited three decades to hear: “guilty”.
Echoing the voices of the victims Judge Barrios said: “For there to be peace in Guatemala, first there must be justice.”
Suddenly, the 1,000 people crammed into the courtroom jumped to their feet and with one voice chanted: “JUSTICIA! JUSTICIA!”
Captions: Top: Maya Ixil women and men, witnesses of the trial, celebrate after listening the sentence given to former Guatemalan de facto President, retired General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 86, for crimes committed during his regime, in Guatemala City on May 10, 2013. Bottom: Rios Montt testifies in court. Photos: Elena Hermosa.
I had goosebumps all over my body as I watched people in tears hugging in celebration. Three decades after 1,700 people from the Ixil Mayan community had been victims of genocide, Rios Montt, former military dictator of Guatemala, had been held to account.
On Friday evening, just after 11pm Irish time, Montt was led away to begin his 80 year sentence in prison – 50 years for the genocide and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.
The panel of judges found that the military employed a calculated strategy to destroy the Ixil through assassination, rape, sexual slavery, forced displacement, intentional starvation and severing sacred ties to their land.
Judge Barrios declared Rios Montt guilty, sentencing him to 80 years in prison– 50 years for the genocide and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity. She echoed the voices of the victims when she said “For there to be peace in Guatemala, first there must be justice.” Photos: Elena Hermosa.
To be in the courtroom throughout this historic trial was an incredible, beautiful and at the same time painful experience. Day after day, I saw the brave Ixil people just yards away from Montt as he denied that there had ever been a genocide.
More than 100 witnesses testified during the trial, many using a translator as they recalled their stories in the Ixil language. These horrific stories would be hard to hear in any language.
“I was 12 years old,” said one woman, whose identity was protected by the court. “They took me with the other women and they tied my feet and hands. They put a rag in my mouth … and they started raping me … I don’t know how many took turns. … I lost consciousness … and the blood kept running. … Later I couldn’t even stand or urinate.”
The powerful proceedings often wrapped the courtroom in profound silence, only to be broken by the sound of sobbing.
The implications of Friday’s verdict are huge. For Guatemalans, especially the indigenous communities who suffered horrendously throughout the country’s civil war, it means that finally, after 30 years, somebody has been held to account for the slaughter of innocent people.
There are also huge implications internationally. Montt was the first former head of state to be charged with genocide in a domestic court, bringing hope to people in other countries that they too might one day see justice.
Friday evening was the culmination of three decades of work for many people in Guatemala. Trócaire is proud to have played our part through our support for more than ten years to the Centre For Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) and the Justice and Reconciliation Association (AJR). Both of these organisations played a vital role in bringing Montt to justice, having first presented the genocide case to the Public Ministry in 2001.
“This is a verdict that is just,” said Edgar Perez of AJR. “This brings justice for the victims and the survivors, for the people of Guatemala.”
Outside the courtroom, the crowds gathered to celebrate a landmark moment in bringing to a close this painful chapter of Guatemala’s history.
“We are all Ixil” they chanted.
But we cannot turn away now, content that justice has been done. We must continue to walk in solidarity with the survivors, lawyers, judges and experts who have displayed extraordinary courage and exceptional dedication to truth, memory and justice and are still at risk.
This verdict is not the end.
On 20 May, the constitutional court of Guatemala overturned the genocide conviction of Rios Montt, ordering the trial to recommence from its mid-way point. Follow Trócaire on Facebook