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RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: Genocide Plans May Be Declassified

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Sep 6 2007 (IPS) - Guatemala’s Constitutional Court must decide whether or not to declassify documents from 1982 and 1983 military operations commanded by then dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt that would shed light on the genocide committed in this Central American country.

"The victims have the right to know the truth, and revealing these documents is a form of reparation," Alejandro Rodríguez, a lawyer with the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), said Thursday in a public hearing held by the Constitutional Court.

In the hearing a public prosecutor and Ríos Montt’s defence attorneys presented arguments in favour of and against declassifying the files.

The Court has five working days, as of Thursday, to make a decision.

On Jul. 19, an appeals court dismissed a legal plea by Ríos Montt to keep the military documents secret. Appeals court Judge Napoleón Gutiérrez argued in his ruling that the documents did not compromise national security because the crimes had already been committed.

He instructed the Defence Ministry, which has kept the files confidential as "state secrets," to hand certified copies of them over to the court hearing the case in which Ríos Montt and other military officers have been charged with genocide.

The documents in question deal with military operations carried out at the height of the counterinsurgency "scorched earth" campaign in which hundreds of rural indigenous villages were destroyed, along with every man, woman and child living there. The operations were known as "Campaña Victoria 1982", the Jul. 15, 1982 "Operativo Sofía", the 1983 "Operación Ixil, Civilian Affairs" and "Plan Firmeza 1983".

Article 30 of the Guatemalan constitution establishes that all administrative documents and files are public unless they deal with military or diplomatic affairs involving national security.

"We cannot try to hide the atrocities that were committed by arguing that a ‘state secret’ is involved," said another AJR lawyer, Edgar Pérez.

"The argument of ‘state secret’ cannot be used as a mechanism of impunity," said Rodríguez, who maintained that the aim of those who want the documents to remain confidential is to block an investigation of the atrocities ordered by Ríos Montt.

The former dictator, who governed Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983, is facing legal action in Guatemala for human rights crimes committed during his time in office, considered the bloodiest period of the 1960-1996 armed conflict that left more than 200,000 – mainly rural indigenous people – dead, including 50,000 victims of forced disappearance.

And in July 2006, a high court in Spain, the Audiencia Nacional, issued an international arrest warrant to seek the extradition to Spain of Ríos Montt and seven other former military and civilian officials from his de facto administration, on charges of torture, state terrorism and genocide.

One of Ríos Montt’s lawyers, Luis Alfonso González, said Thursday that under military rules, a document considered to be a "state secret" can only be declassified "after 30 years, or under a decision by the same authority that classified it" – in this case, the Defence Ministry.

"If the public prosecutor office’s request is granted, both the Defence Ministry and the Constitutional Court judge would be violating the constitution," argued González, who said "the judge cannot decide whether or not the document is secret."

Iduvina Hernández of the non-governmental Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy (SEDEM) told IPS that "at this point, a quarter century after the events, there is no national security argument that can justify the continued classification or secrecy surrounding military operations in the field."

"What is a state secret? Killing children, burning down thatch huts? The army wants to wash its hands like Pilates," Ramón Caba, the survivor of a massacre and the chairman of the AJR board of directors, told journalists Thursday.

The AJR groups survivors of the massacres committed during the civil war.

At the end of the public hearing, which lasted an hour and a half, Caba said he hoped the Constitutional Court "will have a good response for us, the survivors."

Tiburcio Gutui, 67, will never forget Feb. 16, 1982, the day the army came into his village and killed his father, mother and five brothers and sisters. "First they shot people, then they set everything on fire and took away the animals – the pigs and chickens," he described to IPS.

Euligia López, whose husband was shot to death, told reporters that "In my community (in the central province of Chimaltenango) alone, they killed 24 women, children and men. We want justice because we were left in utter poverty after the military burnt down our houses."

The survivors who showed up at the public hearing expressed their trust in Guatemala’s justice system.

Juan Francisco Soto, the head of the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH), also expressed optimism.

In a statement, CALDH pointed out that according to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in cases of human rights violations, authorities cannot invoke mechanisms like "state secrets," confidentiality, or reasons of public interest or national security to refuse to hand over information requested by authorities carrying out an investigation or legal process.

The Inter-American Court took that stance in its ruling against the Guatemalan state for the murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, the founder of the Association for the Advance of Social Sciences in Guatemala (AVANCSO), who was stabbed to death outside of the group’s offices in the capital in September 1990.

In 1989, Mack had published a study which concluded that government counter-insurgency policies had caused the internal displacement of Guatemala&#39s indigenous people.

In 1993, Sergeant Noel de Jesús Beteta Álvarez, a member of the Department of Presidential Security, was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for Mack’s murder.

Thursday’s hearing added a new dimension to next Sunday’s general elections, in which Guatemalans will choose a new president, vice president, legislators and mayors.

Ríos Montt, 81, heads the list of parliamentary candidates of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front, the main opposition party.

A May 18 ruling by the Supreme Electoral Court allowed him to run for reelection to the legislature, despite the legal charges he is facing. The decision drew howls of outrage both within and outside Guatemala.

On Jul. 30, the Guatemalan attorney general’s office received 1,200 letters from people in 23 countries urging it to speed up the cases against Ríos Montt and other military officers accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.

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