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The long fight for justice in Guatemala

By Sally O’Neill, Head of Region, Latin America
Sally O’Neill reflects on Trócaire’s groundbreaking work in Guatemala which began over 30 years ago and the recent genocide trial of former dictator Rios Montt.
It was 1982 and I was in Guatemala trying to meet a man called Frank La Rue. I had been given a piece of paper with instructions to wait in a designated coffee shop and look for a man carrying a copy of Time magazine. 
My instructions were clear: if this man did not show up, I was to swallow the piece of paper and immediately board a bus to get me out of the country. 
This was the height of Rios Montt’s military regime. Frank was an up and coming human rights lawyer and had already come to the regime’s attention. Even knowing him was dangerous; trying to meet him could have been fatal. Soon, Guatemala’s streets would be too dangerous for Frank, forcing him into exile from his own country. 
After that first meeting, I travelled to the Guatemalan highlands. There, I spent time with indigenous Mayan communities. Within two years, 440 of these communities would be wiped from the face of the earth – the people slaughtered and thrown into mass graves; the few survivors held hostage and used as sex slaves by the military. 
Approximately 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala’s civil war, 70% of whom were murdered during the years of Montt’s reign in the early 1980s. 
Frank worked closely with Trócaire in the years that followed. He had set up the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights in Guatemala (CALDH). 
Together, we found that a problem facing widows in the highlands was that without proof of their husband’s death, they had no access to land title. And so we decided to work together to exhume mass graves. 
We set up a small team and they began lifting victims out of the ground. Today, that team is regarded as leading forensic experts and have worked on similar cases in Ethiopia and Argentina. 
We spent time with indigenous communities; heart-breaking days when the trauma of what they experienced was, quite literally, dragged up in front of them again. 
It was always our dream that these people would one day see justice in a Guatemalan courtroom. And so, after almost three decades of tireless perseverance from CALDH and others like them, Rios Montt entered court last month – the first former head of state anywhere in the world to be charged with genocide in a domestic court. 
Trial of Rios Montt
Top: Attendees at the trial of Rios Montt. Bottom: Rios Montt testifies in court. Photos: Elena Hermosa.
The trial was incredibly powerful. Day after day, the indigenous people who had suffered during his reign, poured into the courtroom. Their dignity was astounding. 
Then, on May 11th, came the word they had all waited to hear: “guilty”. The courtroom erupted in chants of “Justicia! Justicia!”
Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison – 50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity. 
Last week, however, the country’s constitutional court overturned the verdict, instead ordering the trial to restart from its midway point. The ruling was a set-back for millions of people in Guatemala, including Frank, who is now the UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Freedom of Opinion. 
There is now much legal argument over the retrial – when it will start, or even whether it will start at all. The people who lost loved ones and suffered brutally at the hands of the military during those years can only hope that justice will not be lost in legal argument. 
Whatever happens, however, the victims can stand tall. For the first time in their lives, they could stand in a courtroom and tell the people of Guatemala, and the entire world, what happened to them. They could stand face-to-face with the people who presided over the military during those brutal years and demand to be listened to. 
Regardless of what happens next, nobody can ever take that from them. 
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