Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The answer to "Who knows who started the fire..." at the Spanish Embassy

Three and a half decades had to go by in order to achieve justice for a horrendous moment in the history of the country. At the time, television cameras recorded the burning of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala and showed the agony the 37 people endured after being blocked from leaving. The official version offered by the State and other conservative actors was that a group of terrorists had committed suicide in an act of protest. [On January 19], a national court sentenced the police officer in charge of the operation; his goal was to guarantee that no one leave the diplomatic headquarters alive.

By Rodrigo Veliz Nómada
Translated by: NISGUA

Original article in Spanish can be found here.

[In 1980] a campesino organization, the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) and a group of students, the Robin García Student Front (FERG), took over the Spanish Embassy to call attention to the beginning of the massacres of entire communities in the highlands of Guatemala.

It was the time of military dictatorships, of guerrilla organizations, of mobilizations and massive marches, of political assassinations every day. These were the years of crisis, when groups - for good or bad - looked for change, while others sought to preserve the way things were through the use of terror. It was the last day of January 1980.

Neighbors and passerbys in zone 9 besieged the police and military, asking them why they were not lifting a finger to save the victims who were crying out. The faces of the police wearing civilian clothes and uniforms remained stone cold. The firefighters looked to break the blockade maintained by security forces. In the background, the cries came out of the top of the two-story building. Screams of agony. The occupants - campesinos, students, Spanish diplomats and other embassy staff - pleaded to be let out while they were being burned alive. For minutes, nobody was able to do anything. Some, out of a sense of helplessness. Others, because they were under direct orders not to do anything. The order was this: not even one person gets out alive.

For years, it was impossible to know who was responsible for the massacre. The intellectual authors backed the official truth provided by the dictatorship: the occupiers of the Spanish Embassy killed themselves in an act of protest. It had nothing to do with the State or its security forces, said the military. The most prestigious conservative historian, Jorge Luján Muñoz maintained for years that Gregorio Yujá Xona, the campesino who survived the burning, only to be killed one day later and left dead on the USAC campus, stated while in the hospital: "who knows who started the fire?" [Muñoz] expressed his position in books and during his testimony at the trial. With this, the truth about one of the biggest urban massacres in the history of Latin America was left in darkness.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Freedom of expression at serious risk in Guatemala

Today, alternative and grassroots media in Guatemala denounced attacks against Radio Snuq' Jolom Konob', a community radio station in the department of Huehuetenango that regularly transmits voices of the Q'anjob'al people living in and around the municipality of Santa Eulalia. 

The department of Huehuetenango, like many other areas in Guatemala, has been the site of increased social conflict due to the presence of transnational extractive companies. Community radio stations play an important role in promoting access to information and freedom of expression, which are two major constitutional rights that are often violated by the Guatemalan government and transnational companies who obtain exploration and extraction licenses without the free, prior and informed consent of impacted communities. 

Today, members of the Radio Snuq' Jolom Konob' denounced the forced shut down of the radio and other attacks as a violation of freedom of expression and the cultural rights of indigenous communities who depend on the station to transmit radio programming in Q'anjob'al. 

For the original press release in Spanish click here.

January 23, 2015

In Guatemala, physical assaults, false accusations and the prosecution of community journalists is increasing, and the lack of support from the mass media in denouncing these intimidations is creating precarious conditions for the exercise of freedom of expression.

Furthermore, the concentration of the mass media in the hands of a few and their monopolistic practices are putting a crack in democracy.

The realities being faced by community radio stations right now in Guatemala show that the State is not fulfilling its obligation to respect, protect and promote the right to freedom of expression.

Alternative, popular and grassroots media continue to be repressed and attacked. Today, there is the case of Radio Snuq' Jolom Konob', who is transmitting information via radio and the internet from Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango about the happenings that affect life in the Q'anjob'al municipality of Santa Eulalia.

On January 19, the radio denounced the persecution of community leaders and acts of aggression by the Mayor of Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, Diego Marcos Pedro. At dawn on January 20, a group of the Mayor's supporters shut down the radio, cutting off the electricity, and became violent with members of the radio team. All of this was done with the support of the Mayor. 

This hasn't been the first attack that Mr. Diego Marcos Pedro conducted against Radio Snuq' Jolom Konob'. In September, 2014, he shut down the building and suspended the electricity because the station was transmitting an event run by the community authorities in Santa Eulalia. Due to pressure from communities, he had to reinstate the electricity to the radio; there are already official complaints registered with the Public Prosecutor's Office under Crimes Against Journalists. In many cases, however, due to the criminalization of community journalists and the stigmatization against them, often these complaints are not followed through. 

It is both urgent and necessary to begin and expand a debate around exercising the rights to freedom of expression, as this right and privilege doesn't only extend to the mass media. 

In light of these threats and acts of aggression against our fellow journalists, reporters and member of the community press: 
  1. We demand: an end to the acts of aggression against community press, reporters and journalists. The act of filing criminal charges, the laws that criminalize the work of citizen journalists, the closing of radios and physical aggressions committed against journalists all constitute a policy of repression against freedom of expression.
  2. We ask: that Congress approves legislation that recognizes alternative and community media.
  3. We need: the Unit for Crimes Against Journalists to be strengthened in the Public Prosecutor's Office, as part of a general social need to strengthen the judicial system in the country.
  4. We demand: the Government of Guatemala provide clear reports on the advancements in the Program for the Protection of Journalists - an initiative offered by the Government since November 2013.
  5. We ask: the Human Right's Ombudsman to pay special attention to what is happening in the interior of the country, where community media are being intimidated by powerful local actors bent on ensuring they cannot fulfill their roles as information providers.
  6. We invite: fellow journalists to be responsible, committed and truthful in carrying out our work to provide the country with information, as democracy rests in our voices and our words.

Radio Comunitaria Snuq' Jolom Konob', Prensa Comunitaria, Red Tz'ikin, DEMOS, CEPPAS GT, AGHS, CERIGUA, Asociacion Sobrevivencia Cultura, Asociacion Mujb'ab'lyol, Asociacion de Radios Comunitarias Guatemala, Asociacion Luciernaga, Centro Civitas, Red Mesoamericana, OPAL Prensa, El Salmon, and Plaza Publica

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2015 US Appropriations Act maintains restrictions on US military aid to Guatemala

When President Otto Peréz Molina was elected in 2012, he came with an agenda to fully re-instate US military aid and end the restrictions on funding to Guatemala in place to varying degrees since the Carter administration implemented a direct security aid ban in 1977.

Even before the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, the outright ban on military assistance to Guatemala had progressively weakened, with restrictions loosened for military training and other areas of military support. In 2005, the ban on US military sales to Guatemala was lifted. Yet despite these changes and much to Molina's chagrin, certain human rights conditions continue to prevent the unrestricted flow of military aid to Guatemala.

Peréz Molina is the first ex-military officer to take power in a civilian government since 1987, and an increase in military presence has been felt throughout the country. Despite his efforts, the US Appropriations Act released in November 2014 for the fiscal year ending September 2015 continues to maintain human rights conditions. The bill requires that the Guatemalan government show progress in the implementation of reparations for communities affected by the construction of the Chixoy dam. It also makes funding dependent on the government building an effective civilian police force separate from the military, and fully cooperating in trying former and current military suspected of committing gross violations of human rights.

On May 10th, 2013, ex-president Ríos Montt became the first former head of state in the world to be tried and convicted in a national court for crimes against humanity and genocide. The case took more than 12 years to go to trial, and included the testimonies of more than a hundred eyewitnesses and experts. However, just ten days later, the Constitutional Court made what many consider an illegal ruling, effectively annulling the verdict. Now, more than a year and a half later, the retrial remains stalled after the presiding judge for the new tribunal was recused at the last minute by Montt's defense. 

The US Embassy in Guatemala supported the genocide case during the first trial, bringing diplomatic attention by attending the public hearings and publishing press releases calling for an independent judicial system and speedy due process. Likewise, Embassy officials announced they were observing the second trial and were present for the opening hearing on January 5th. While Peréz Molina has loudly denounced the Embassy for its public stance on this high-profile case, its international presence has been important to survivors, witnesses and their legal teams.

But as the Guatemalan Center for Independent Media (CMI) points out, the reasons behind the Embassy's support for the case are complex and multi-faceted. When Montt was initially convicted, a strong case could have been made that the Guatemalan judiciary had successfully tried one of its highest-ranking former military with the support of the Guatemalan state, showing advancement on one of the main conditions of reinstating US military aid. However, since the Constitutional Court annulled the verdict and there is currently no clear timeframe or process for the resumption of the retrial, this same argument no longer applies. Although the appropriations bill makes no mention of specific crimes, it essentially ties the lifting of restrictions to the advancement of the biggest and most emblematic case currently before the judicial system - the Ixil genocide case.

US military restrictions only go so far

In 2008, the Bush administration modeled the highly controversial Plan Colombia to launch the Mérida Initiative - a plan that provides training, equipment and intelligence to Mexican and Central American security forces to address key security issues such as drug trafficking, gang violence and judicial reform. As part of the Mérida Initiative, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was formed and was later expanded under the Obama administration. Since its inception, more than $800 million in funding has been given to Central America under Mérida/CARSI, and the Appropriations Act for FY2015 allocates an additional $130 million to the region for this year - $57 million earmarked for Guatemala alone.

Specifically, the funds are designated to increase border security between Mexico and Guatemala and expand economic and social development in the regions where most unaccompanied and undocumented minors travelling to the US originate and where significant gang activity occurs. The funds are also designated to support facilities that address the need for safe repatriation and reintegration of minors, combat human trafficking, and promote judicial and police reform with a particular focus on strengthening judicial independence and community policing.

There is no doubt that the US Embassy has played a role in helping to promote the progression of the genocide case through a variety of measures, and that the ongoing restrictions included in the Appropriations Act are an additional pressure point. It is also clear, however, from the Mérida/CARSI Initiative and other US sources of funding for military support in Guatemala, that the northern country's foreign policy in the region privileges a military solution to narcotrafficking and undocumented migration. What's more, a strong judicial system certainly bodes well for North American extractive companies in the region and other foreign investors looking for stability. The US' support for the very structures that have led to the problems they now want to eradicate is well documented. Contradictions in US foreign policy are certainly not new.

But while the advancement of the genocide case is essential, as long as the former-general-turned-president Peréz Molina stays in power, major concerns exist for what reinstating unrestricted US military aid to Guatemala could mean for communities, human rights defenders and civil society organizations already experiencing a heavy-handed response to their work against impunity and in defense of territory.

During the last two years alone, Molina has enacted two states of siege - a measure likened to marshal law - almost exclusively under the guise of combating narcotrafficking. Under the states of siege, communities found themselves with many of their constitutional rights suspended, dozens of leaders arrested without charge and a major increase in the presence of military checkpoints and patrols. All of the places where a state of siege has been implemented are host to large-scale resistance movements where communities are organized against the presence of transnational extractive projects.

It remains to be seen what will transpire over Peréz Molina's final year in office. Although the US currently provides training and support to the Guatemalan military, the restrictions in the Appropriations Act continue to give human rights organizations a glimmer of hope that the US will not resume its unrestricted support for military aid to Guatemala.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Interview with members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation on the genocide retrial and suspension of proceedings

NISGUA sat down with several members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) to ask them how they feel about the genocide retrial and the events of January 5th, when lead Judge Jeannette Valdés was recused from hearing the case and the retrial was suspended. The departure of Judge Valdés means that the trial is suspended with no clear time frame for when the recusal issue will be resolved, leaving the process for justice for genocide once again in legal limbo.

How does the AJR feel about having to repeat the genocide trial despite the fact that a sentence was already given? What does the 2013 sentence mean for survivors?

Anselmo Roldán, AJR President: The AJR's search for justice has been tireless, and one that has taken place over many years. We have made many sacrifices in the name of demanding access to justice in Guatemala. And finally, after so many years, a verdict was reached after we - the victims - told the truth. The sentence was very encouraging and fell in line with all of the investigations that were done, the expert testimonies that were given, and with the recommendations made by the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH).

For a long time, we stayed silent. It was like having a knot in our throats. We couldn't say anything. But when the trial happened, all of the witnesses told the truth. They talked about the reality they had lived, testifying to what happened during the armed conflict. Any weakness [in the process] rests with the institutions responsible for complying with justice. The failure is there. We know that we told the truth. 

There is already a sentence and for us, it means a lot. We've been put through a lot of run-around, not only by a judicial system that is not doing its job, but by 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. But we still uphold the sentence and will continue to keep it alive until another court hears what we suffered and hears us tell the truth. We are ready to repeat the trial again, like we anticipated doing [on January 5th]. 

Julia Cortez, AJR former president and current spokesperson: The sentence doesn't bring back our loved ones, but at least it meant justice for the military high command who killed our loved ones. The trial already took place, but now we have to repeat it. The judges don't see the pain and the profound sadness of the survivors. A verdict was already given and so it is unfortunate that we have to return to trial again.

Juventino Caal, AJR member: This system has made a mockery of us by forcing us to return to this process again just because it doesn't want to ratify what has already been achieved. We are being excluded and obviously, don't feel triumphant, but we have to speak out against all of the corruption and impunity that exists in this country. We know that in Guatemala genocide took place. The whole world knows it, but the truth has been denied. But we haven't lost hope that we will win this process in the name of justice. This search for justice doesn't only benefit the victims and families but also benefits the youth and future generations that are still to come.

If we aren't able to convict the [intellectual] author of genocide in this country, we run the risk of repeating our history. We want to ensure that we never again experience the war we lived through.

How do you feel about what happened in the courtroom on January 5th?

Anselmo Roldán: In the morning, it seemed that the judges wanted to act impartially and in favor of justice instead of one group or the other. But in the end that changed. First, the judge said she was going to find the recusal [put forward by the defense] without merit, but afterwards, she ruled in favor. It's possible the court received threats. We don't know. 

We see the show that General Rios Montt put on, acting as though he were gravely ill, as a well-planned strategy. When the trial opened a year ago, he was very strong. It was only after he was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison that he started to show weakness. We don't believe that he became that sick, but instead that it is a lie meant to confuse the people of Guatemala and the international community. 

Do you have a message for the international community? 

Anselmo Roldán: Guatemala has the responsibility to comply with all of the international agreements that it is a signatory to especially as it relates to access to justice and the genocide case. We know that Guatemala won't comply with these laws without pressure from international institutions and embassies. We call on the international community to pressure the Guatemalan government to comply with these agreements.

Juventino Caal: I am very thankful for international accompaniment so that people realize we are not alone. I hope that there is more presence, more accompaniment, to observe this process. We are going to show the world that it is not only Guatemala bringing forward this process, but that many other countries are present as well. This support gives us an advantage. 

Julia Cortez: Accompaniment [of survivors] is always important because that is the only way we will know that we are supported. We continue to ask for more support and accompaniment.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Genocide retrial: Recusal of judge leads to suspension of proceedings

"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.

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."
The 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.

"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.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A solidarity message to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation as the genocide case goes to retrial

January 5, 2015

Dear members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR),

During this moment in which the Guatemala justice system is retrying the case against Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez, we here at NISGUA want to acknowledge this long process in search of justice and particularly recognize the bravery of the witnesses who testified during the first genocide trial. We are honored to have been able to accompany the AJR for more than 15 years, through difficult moments of complete legal paralysis, through victorious moments such as the sentence in the Ixil genocide case. Each human rights accompanier who has passed through your homes has been changed by your stories; these testimonies will forever be carried in the hearts of people who have heard them, motivating them to spread your messages while working towards a better world.

We write you today to re-affirm our commitment to stand in solidarity with you, as survivors and heroes continuing the struggle for justice for your loved ones. We also want to take this moment to remember and acknowledge the testimonies we heard during the 2013 trial.

We remember the testimonies of those who survived massacres only to be forced into model villages and civil defense patrols. We remember the testimonies of those who lived in the mountains in near-starvation for years. We were heartbroken, listening to the ten incredibly courageous women who testified that after they survived their own rape, they were then forced to witness the rapes of their mothers and children. We recognize the immense and ongoing psychological and physical trauma associated with having survived such brutality. We remember testimonies of witnesses who survived massacres as children in their communities, only to be taken away by the military to live in orphanages.

We remember the more than 100 Ixil witnesses, whose testimonies strengthened the case against Ríos Montt and his military high command, demonstrating that racist policies against the indigenous population were intentional and that the genocide was planned. People spoke about the massacres of their families, the destruction of their crops, the inability to bury their loved ones with dignity, extreme sexual violence and slavery, and attempts to sever connections with ancestors. These stories are themselves incredible testimonies to survival and resilience, and these same accounts honor those who were killed.

We are privileged to have stood by you during the verdict, where Ríos Montt became the first former head of state in the world to be tried and convicted in a national court for crimes against humanity and genocide. We do not forget the spontaneous applause and cries of “Justicia!” in the courtroom when Judge Barrios confirmed what you have always said -- “Sí hubo genocidio!” (It was genocide!) We continue to uphold that sentence with you, as testimony to what happened here in Guatemala with training and military support from the United States. The annulment of the verdict is also a testimony to the powerful structures that exist in Guatemala, which continue to maintain impunity and deny genocide. We recognize the incredible risks you took in speaking out against these powerful actors and know that you continue to face danger despite having your testimony validated by a court of law. These actors may be powerful, but the truth is even more powerful and it will prevail.

Today, we re-affirm our support for you as you continue the retrial and in your ongoing search for justice. We will continue standing by you and call on our US base and other international allies to do the same.

In solidarity,