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.