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

RIGHTS-GUATEMALA: Still Waiting for Justice, 28 Years On

Inés Benítez

GUATEMALA CITY, Jan 31 2008 (IPS) - "I suffer because three of my kids were murdered. One of them, who was just 17, was killed when the Spanish embassy was burnt down. I am sad because in Guatemala there is no justice," Catarina Lux, a 68-year-old indigenous woman from the northwestern province of El Quiché, told IPS Thursday.

Twenty-eight years after the security forces set fire to the embassy in Guatemala City on Jan. 31, 1980, family members of the victims of the fire and of the 1960-1996 civil war gathered outside the Constitutional Court in the capital to protest its decision to throw out international arrest warrants for seven former military officials accused of crimes against humanity.

"In Guatemala there are 250,000 dead and disappeared on one hand and on the other no single guilty person in jail. Where is justice?" Julio Solórzano Foppa, the son of writer Alaide Foppa, who fell victim to forced disappearance under the military regime, asked in statements to the press.

On Dec. 12, 2007, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court decided not to honour a Spanish judge’s extradition request for five generals, including former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) who is currently a member of parliament, former president Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982), and two former civilian officials, arguing that Spain has no jurisdiction over crimes committed in Guatemala.

During the government of former dictator Lucas García, a group of indigenous campesinos (small farmers) from several communities in the region of El Quiché, along with university students, peacefully occupied the Spanish embassy in the capital to draw attention to the bloody military repression in their villages.

The security forces set fire to the embassy, and 37 people died, including Spanish consul Jaime Ruiz del Árbol, former Guatemalan foreign minister Adolfo Molina, former Guatemalan vice president Eduardo Cáceres, and the father of 1992 Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú, Vicente Menchú.

"They killed my sons and my husband died in the fire," another elderly Quiché woman, 66-year-old Angélica Catarina, told IPS, drying her tears with a red handkerchief as she called for justice.

Members of the Committee of Campesino Unity and representatives of human rights groups demonstrated outside the Constitutional Court, holding signs reading "Court of Impunity" and "Why, If Genocide Was Committed?" along with photos from that period, mainly of the burning of the Spanish embassy.

Menchú, the founder of the foundation that carries her name, filed a lawsuit in 1999 in a high court in Spain against former leaders of Guatemala’s dictatorship on charges of genocide, torture, state terrorism and other crimes against humanity committed in Guatemala during the armed conflict between the state security forces and leftist insurgents.

The Spanish court investigated the charges and issued international warrants for arrest and extradition to Spain against Ríos Montt – currently a legislator representing the rightwing Guatemalan Republican Front – and other officials of his dictatorship, on Jul. 7, 2006.

In the case of the embassy fire, the Spanish high court (Audiencia Nacional) issued warrants for Ríos Montt, retired generals Óscar Humberto Mejía and Romeo Lucas García, and two former ministers, Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz and General Ángel Aníbal Guevara.

Also among the accused are chief of the National Police, Germán Chupina, police officer Pedro García Arredondo and former armed forces Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García.

Menchú, with the backing of the Genocide Never Again Coordinating committee, filed a lawsuit in a local court on Jan. 17 against the five Constitutional Court justices who threw out the arrest warrants and extradition request for the former military officials.

But the activist’s lawsuit was also thrown out, on the argument that the Constitutional Court magistrates cannot be persecuted for opinions expressed in the course of their duties.

A day earlier, Spain’s Audiencia Nacional, had stated that Guatemalan authorities had refused to cooperate with the extradition requests, which, it said, remained in effect.

Since 2005, Audiencia Nacional Justice Santiago Pedraz has been investigating the deaths of around 250,000 people, mainly Maya Indians, under the military regimes that ruled Guatemala with an iron fist from 1961 to 1996, and with heightened violence between 1978 and 1984.

Under a scorched earth counterinsurgency policy applied in the early 1980s, some 440 indigenous villages and their inhabitants were wiped off the map by the security forces and the roughly 50,000 members of the paramilitary "civil defence patrols" armed by the military.

According to a 1999 report by the United Nations-sponsored Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), agents of the state were responsible for the great majority of the atrocities.

Sixteen witnesses of the massacres committed in Guatemala during the armed conflict flew to Spain Thursday to testify before the Audiencia Nacional, which will take declarations from two other groups of witnesses in March and May, Benito Morales, a lawyer for the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, told IPS.

"They are testifying in Spain because Guatemala does not want to live up to its legal obligations," he lamented.

In his view, both the Constitutional Court decision and the verdict of the Guatemalan court that rejected the charges brought against the Constitutional Court justices demonstre the "complicity" of the Guatemalan judges with the accused.

"There are compelling signs that political interests underlie these decisions," he said. "The power of the accused, especially that of some of them, is very deep-rooted, and they have an influence over the system."

During the protest, the demonstrators carried coffins, from which were hung signs accusing the Constitutional Court of complicity. They also covered dozens of shoes with red paint, as well as a placard reading "Efraín Ríos Montt, Wanted for Genocide".

The head of the Centre for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH), Mario Minera, said the Constitutional Court decision "was shameful." He also told IPS that he found it "inexplicable" that the witnesses of the massacres would have to testify in a Spanish court.

"The Guatemalan people should be reminded that the state has not had the will to do justice or to compensate the victims. They have ruled in favour of the accused," Eduardo de León, director of the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, remarked to IPS.

José Ernesto Menchú, Rigoberta’s cousin, told the press that he hoped for "justice and reparations for the victims," and that "human rights violators" would stop being favoured.

Solórzano Foppa, a plaintiff in the case against the former military officials, asked the government of President Álvaro Colom, who took office on Jan. 14, to "please tell us what is his opinion on the Constitutional Court ruling and his position with respect to the question of the appearance in court of those responsible for the massacres."

"The Court resolution is not only unconstitutional, but violates the international treaties on human rights signed by the state and hurts its international relations," he argued.

As part of the events held to mark the anniversary of the embassy fire, families of the victims organised a vigil outside the embassy Thursday and on Wednesday held a ceremony at the Maya ruins of Kaminal Juyú to the south of the capital, organised by the Committee of Campesino Unity, to which Menchú’s father belonged.

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