Guatemala slipping back into impunity on anniversary of overturned genocide conviction

The fight for justice for victims of crimes against humanity and genocide, from Guatemala’s past conflict is being seriously undermined, Amnesty International said today. 

A year ago today Guatemala’s Constitutional Court annulled the conviction of former President General Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity and genocide committed in the 1980s. Since then key judicial figures have been replaced or sanctioned, and resolutions passed that further erode the chances of victims of the past conflict seeing justice.

“Victims of Ríos Montt’s crimes have been fighting for justice for more than three decades and now are again facing numerous obstacles created to deny them that justice,” said Sebastian Elgueta, Guatemala researcher at Amnesty International. 

“Guatemala owes a debt of justice to those victims, as well as to the rest of the estimated 200,000 victims of the conflict.” 

On 20 May 2013, the conviction of Ríos Montt for his role in the killing, torturing and forced displacement of 1,771 Maya-Ixil indigenous people during his 1982-83 presidency was effectively annulled by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court on a technicality. 

Since then the Attorney General who oversaw the prosecution of the original case has been replaced, the presiding judge has been disbarred and the Congress of Guatemala has passed a non-binding resolution declaring that genocide never occurred during the country’s 36 year conflict, which ended in 1996.Last week’s resolution by Congress of Guatemala directly contradicted a 1999 UN investigation, which concluded that genocide and crimes against humanity had occurred. During the 36-year conflict, around four in five victims were from Guatemala’s Indigenous Peoples population with over 600 massacres recorded in Indigenous areas. 

“Findings of fact which result from independent investigations and impartial courts cannot be ignored because they make uncomfortable reading for those in positions of power. Such a conclusion may only be reached by a court of justice,” said Sebastian Elgueta. 

“Congress should support efforts to hold accountable those alleged to have committed mass human rights atrocities, not strengthen a climate of impunity and discrimination against Indigenous People in Guatemala”. 

Congress’s resolution came three months after the Guatemalan Bar Association’s Ethics Tribunal sanctioned the presiding judge Yassmin Barrios for a procedural ruling taken during the 2013 trial of Ríos Montt.

“The Ethics Tribunal decision to sanction the trial judge, punishing the judge for a judicial decision taken during the trial, amounts to an interference with the independence of the judiciary. If it is allowed to stand, it will set a precedent for allowing lawyers to punish judges for decisions that they didn’t agree with,” said Elgueta. 

In February this year the Constitutional Court also cut short the period in office of the Attorney General who oversaw the 2013 trial of Ríos Montt. Despite widespread praise for her achievements while in office, Claudia Paz y Paz was not shortlisted for a second term and a new Attorney General has just assumed office.

The curtailment of Claudia Paz y Paz’s period in office and her absence from the final shortlist gave the impression of retaliation for ensuring cases of human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict were properly investigated and prosecuted. 

“Guatemala is currently at a crossroads. The country should not turn back the clock and return to the days when cases of past human rights violations were simply not investigated or prosecuted,” said Sebastian Elgueta.

“Hundreds of thousands of victims of Guatemala’s conflict, including relatives of those killed and disappeared, survivors of massacres and sexual violence, expect the new Attorney General to continue efforts to secure justice”. 

Otto Perez Molina, the current President of Guatemala, began his term by ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, creating a safeguard for future accountability should war crimes ever be committed again in Guatemala.

“The President’s decision to ratify the Rome Statue was welcomed nationally and all over the world. Unless he wants his legacy to be one of impunity for past human rights violations he must show leadership setting the tone for accountability, respect for victims and justice,” said Sebastian Elgueta.