"We know that genocide took place. The whole world knows it, but the truth has been denied." Juventino Caal, member of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR)
Yesterday, a new trial against Jose Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez opened in Guatemalan courts and once again the survivors and witnesses were left clamoring for justice. The retrial came after the Constitutional Court annulled the 2013 proceedings, which had resulted in the conviction of Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity.
"It's unfortunate that we have to return to trial because a sentence was already dictated," said Julia Cortez, representative of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR).
As predicted, trial proceedings on January 5th provided observers, lawyers and survivors a glimpse into the delay-tactic strategies and, quite possibly, back-room dealings that are overshadowing the possibility of timely and impartial access to justice in Guatemalan national courts.
Now, with all the games they are playing, the justice system has not assumed its responsibility. This demonstrates the weakness of the Guatemalan state. The political position is clear: they will not guarantee our [the survivors and witnesses] lives… they don’t guarantee us anything. They put our lives, the victims’ lives, in danger. (Anselmo Roldán, President of the AJR)The marathon day began with survivors, lawyers and observers arriving as early as 7 am to enter into the small room assigned for the day. Over 100 survivors and their supporters who were unable to get into the courtroom gathered outside the building to listen to a live broadcast amidst banners and posters.
AJR supporters listen outside courtroom to Judge order #RiosMontt to appear or be declared in contempt #EyesOnJan5 pic.twitter.com/KqN6tmyouv
— NISGUA (@NISGUA_Guate) January 5, 2015
When the proceedings began 20 minutes after the appointed 8:30 am start time, a two-hour delay was announced to await the transfer of the case file. Said file was still with the Appeals Court charged with deciding amnesty. After resuming again at 11 am, the President of the three-judge tribunal decided that Ríos Montt, so far absent from proceedings, must appear in person. She rejected the medical excuse presented on December 30th and stated he had one hour to appear in court or he would be held in contempt. Court was adjourned until 1 pm. The former head of state was finally wheeled into the courtroom on a gurney amid a voracious crowd of journalists lined up six deep at the front of the courtroom.
Montt was situated on the prosecution’s side of the gallery due to the need to accommodate the gurney. Judge Jeannette Valdés moved immediately to rule on the defense’s motion calling for her recusal. Analysts have asked why the judge did not address the issue of Ríos Montt’s health. The accused former general, who was wearing cataract sunglasses and was strapped to a gurney, was not asked to indicate his presence in the court and indeed showed no signs of being conscious.
The defense argument centered on a thesis written by the lead judge in 2004 on the legal application of the crime of genocide.
Valdés initially rejected the recusal on grounds that the thesis did not make her partial, rather it was an academic study that focused on doctrine and the application of the law. She also pointed to the late filing of the motion by the defense as an intentional stall tactic, highlighting that the tribunal and her participation in it has been public knowledge since June 2013. However, the two other judges on the tribunal - Judges Sara Yoc Yoc and Judge Maria Eugenia Castellanos – voted in favor of Valdés’ recusal. Further court dates remain to be seen as all proceedings are stalled until a new judge is named. There is no legal consensus on the timeline for the formation of a new tribunal.
"We thought that the process was going well," said AJR President Anselmo Roldán. "It seemed that in the beginning, the judges wanted to act impartially and in favor of justice… But we also saw their weakness… and maybe they received threats, we don’t know."
With Judge Valdez accepting the recusal, #genocide retrial suspended until another tribunal can be formed. #EyesOnJan5The survivors and witnesses represented by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation are disappointed that the Constitutional Court did not respect the first genocide verdict and sentence. However, they remain committed to the legal processes in national courts. As a testament to their ongoing sacrifices in the search for justice and dignity for their loved ones, a flood of AJR survivors and supporters traveled from points throughout the country to bear witness to the proceedings in the gallery and outside the courthouse.
— NISGUA (@NISGUA_Guate) January 5, 2015
"We have been denied [justice] many times, but we have not lost hope…We are grateful for international accompaniment so people realize we are not alone." Juventino Caal, AJR
You can show your support for the AJR in this difficult and uncertain time by reading our solidarity statement and taking a photo of yourself holding up a sign that reads "Justice for Genocide: We are still with you!" Stay tuned for up to date coverage on the proceedings in the genocide case through our twitter account: NISGUA_Guate.