Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: A Glimmer of Hope for Genocide Victims&#39 Families

Paco Fión*

GUATEMALA CITY, Dec 14 2006 (IPS) - One morning in 1982 the Guatemalan army descended on Pedro Santiago&#39s village and started shooting anything that moved. Santiago, a member of the Ixil indigenous community, was wounded and his small daughter was killed. Former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt stands accused of massacres like this one.

But the former dictator (1982-1983) has now gained a few more days&#39 grace thanks to the postponement of a court hearing in Guatemala, which is to decide whether or not to accept Spain&#39s request for extradition, to put Ríos Montt on trial to face charges of genocide, state terrorism, torture and illegal detention.

At least there is still a light of hope at the end of the tunnel for the relatives of victims of the authoritarian governments and military dictatorships who waged the counterinsurgency war, which cost the lives of more than 200,000 people. Of these, 45,000 people were detained-disappeared, and their bodies have never been found. Indigenous people bore the brunt of the army&#39s brutality.

The armed conflict, which broke out in 1960, ended on Dec. 29, 1996, when a peace deal was signed by the government of Álvaro Arzú and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) after nearly six years of peace talks.

One of the agreements contained in the 10-point peace accord was for the establishment of a Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) to investigate human rights violations and acts of violence.

The commission concluded in its 1999 report that the Guatemalan state was guilty of genocide, perpetrated during the military campaigns it launched in the early 1980s.

Progress has been made on the arduous road in search of justice since the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation brought a suit before the Audiencia Nacional (national high court) of Spain to rule on the genocide committed in Guatemala.

The Foundation is headed by Menchú, a human rights activist, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and best-selling author of "I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala" (1983).

Menchú, a Quiché Maya indigenous woman, approached the Spanish court asking for an investigation into the Jan. 31, 1980 attack by government forces on the Embassy of Spain in Guatemala. The embassy was deliberately set on fire, and her father, Vicente Menchú, and another 38 people were killed.

The Guatemalan forces stormed the embassy, which had been occupied by a group of indigenous people, workers and students. Three Spanish officials were still inside as well.

The burning of the Spanish Embassy was one of the highest-profile incidents in Guatemala&#39s civil war, and caused diplomatic relations between the two countries to be broken off for 16 years.

Finding it impossible to get the courts to act in Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchú and other civil society leaders took their case to the Audiencia Nacional in Spain, which added their claims to another suit involving charges of genocide and the extrajudicial execution of four Jesuit priests from Spain.

But a problem arose when the Spanish high court ruled that universal jurisdiction was not applicable to all the cases. It decided, however, to try the cases of the attack on the Spanish embassy and the murder of the four Jesuits.

Among the accused are former president Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982); former defence minister Ángel Aníbal Guevara; and former police chiefs Germán Chupina Barahona and Pedro García Arredondo.

But the legal process really took off in 2005, when Spain&#39s Constitutional Court ruled that the Spanish justice system could try the Guatemalan genocide case. At this point, Ríos Montt and the dictator who succeeded him, Oscar Mejía Víctores (1983-1986), were included among the accused in the high-profile Spanish trial.

Retired generals Ríos Montt and Mejía Víctores are charged with carrying out a "scorched earth" campaign, in which hundreds of rural indigenous villages were completely destroyed, and every resident – men, women and children – massacred.

Judge Santiago Pedraz, who is presiding over the trial in Spain, made a fact-finding trip to Guatemala in June to take statements from the accused, but their defence lawyers managed to prevent this happening by obtaining judicial stays.

Pedraz finally returned to Spain and decided to put out international arrest warrants for genocide against the accused, but the order issued by the Guatemalan Fifth Criminal Sentencing Court excluded Ríos Montt, to the astonishment of all.

The presiding judge at the Fifth Sentencing Court, Morelia Ríos, told IPS that the reason for this controversial decision was that "Judge Pedraz did not explain in detail the evidence linking Ríos Montt with the attack on the Spanish embassy in Guatemala and with the deaths of the four priests."

So on Nov. 7, three of the accused were placed under preventive arrest preparatory to extradition. One week later, Judge Pedraz extended the charges to include torture and genocide on the basis of Menchú&#39s suit, and the modification was received by the Fifth Sentencing Court on Dec. 6. Ríos Montt&#39s lawyers appealed to the Constitutional Court immediately after the first extradition request, alleging that the Spanish judge&#39s work in Guatemala was unconstitutional.

Ríos Montt has denied the charges against him, and he stated at a press conference that he has not been summonsed, heard or condemned in a court of law, and that he was waiting to be tried according to due process by his own country&#39s justice system.

His words fell like a bucket of cold water on relatives of the genocide victims. "I didn&#39t know about the massacres," said the former dictator, who argued that "The army followed orders" during his rule, but there were some officers who committed "excesses" of which he had no knowledge at the time.

But it is clear for Pedro Santiago, now 50, and his family that what happened on Feb. 25, 1982 was much more than just an "excess."

"That morning, the army came to the village and started to shoot us. I fled with my daughter on my shoulders, to take refuge in the mountains. I ran and ran, then a bullet perforated my left arm and my daughter&#39s right foot. After that I can&#39t remember anything. I woke up in Huehuetenango Hospital. I asked for Magdalena. They told me she was dead," he told IPS.

Like Santiago, thousands of families suffered the consequences of a civil war that ravaged the country for three decades.

But the legal process started by Menchú&#39s suit has reopened old divisions in Guatemalan society. While human rights groups celebrate the initiative of the Spanish justice system, conservative sectors complain against what they call "foreign meddling."

"Guatemala&#39s sovereignty and independence from Spain was declared on Sept. 15, 1821, and now they are being violated," said Francisco Palomo, Ríos Montt&#39s defence lawyer.

Vice-President Eduardo Stein, for his part, told IPS that it was "deplorable that Guatemala should not be capable of solving its own problems, and that these steps should have to be taken."

However, for many Guatemalans this trial could be an historic turning-point, as it is the first time that perpetrators of the genocide inflicted on the country will be tried in a court of law.

It&#39s a start, although there&#39s a long way to go yet, as Menchú herself reminded IPS. "Ten years after the peace agreement was signed, many of its points have still not been fulfilled: the victims have not received adequate material or symbolic reparations, and those responsible for the crimes have never publicly apologised," she said.

* With additional reporting by Spanish journalist Claudia Munaiz

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