A Guatemalan judge’s decision to try the former de facto head of state, Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity is a major step forward for accountability in Guatemala, Human Rights Watch said today.
Ríos Montt has been under house arrest since January 2012, when the Attorney General’s Office charged him with ordering the killings of more than 1,700 Mayan people in Guatemala during the years he was de facto head of state (1982-1983). The judge, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, also ordered a former general, José Rodríguez Sánchez, to stand trial for his alleged role in these crimes.
“Until recently, the idea of a Guatemalan general being tried for these heinous crimes seemed utterly impossible,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that a judge has ordered the trial of a former head of state is a remarkable development in a country where impunity for past atrocities has long been the norm.”
A United Nations-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification estimated that as many as 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960-1996) and attributed 93 percent of the human rights abuses it documented to state security forces. It concluded that the military had carried out “acts of genocide.”
In 1996, at the end of the armed conflict, a Law of National Reconciliation established an amnesty for “political crimes” committed by both sides during the armed conflict, but explicitly excluded genocide, torture, enforced disappearances, and crimes that are not subject to statutes of limitation under international law.
In May 2012, Ríos Montt was also charged with murder and crimes against humanity in a separate case for his role in a 1982 massacre in the town of Dos Erres, in the Petén region, in which soldiers murdered more than 250 people, including children. In March, a former member of army special forces, Pedro Pimentel Ríos, was sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for his role in the Dos Erres massacre. In 2011, four other former soldiers received similar sentences for their involvement in the killings.