Guatemalan Dictator's Genocide Conviction A First

Last week's guilty verdict makes former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt the first head of state to be convicted of genocide by a national court in the country where the crimes took place. American University law professor Diane Orentlicher examines the significance of Montt's conviction.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Last Friday, the dramatic conclusion of a landmark prosecution, former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt became the first head of state to be convicted of genocide by a national court in his own country. The verdict represents a victory for Guatemalan prosecutors and for victims who've been seeking justice for years. Diane Orentlicher is a professor of international law at American University, where she's an expert in war crimes issues, and joins us now from member station WAMU here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.

DIANE ORENTLICHER: Great to be here.

CONAN: And a little background: It's been almost 20 years since the end of Guatemala's so-called Dirty War. General Rios Montt is now 86 years old. Some might wonder if justice delayed is justice denied.

ORENTLICHER: Well, this obviously has been a really long time in coming for the victims of the crimes in Guatemala, and for their country, as well. I think the victims who had an opportunity to testify in the trial proceedings would say that justice ultimately was not denied, as a result of this really historic outcome, that I don't think anybody expected to happen.

CONAN: Why?

ORENTLICHER: Well, there has been a really remarkable wave of prosecutions for former political leaders who, in days of yore, would have enjoyed a comfortable retirement and not faced any threat of prosecution. And against that history, in Latin America in particular, many former leaders and other senior officials have faced trial in the last 20 years or so. And it's been a notable phenomenon, and has provided inspiration for countries in other regions of the world, as well.

But Guatemala was the really striking holdout from this pattern. And so while one after another country was able to confront its past, not only through historical confrontations, through truth commissions and other means, but also in court. While that was happening in the region broadly, Guatemala was really almost a poster case for enduring impunity. And there were numerous efforts made over many, many years, led by Guatemalans themselves, but with a lot of support from the international community in many different ways. And despite all these efforts, Guatemala was unable, until recently, to bring past leaders to justice.

And so it seemed to be really impervious to this kind of judicial reckoning. And the fact that it's happened is, of course, all the more remarkable, because of the obstacles that had to be overcome to reach this day.

CONAN: It's interesting: The current president of Guatemala served under General Rios Montt all those years ago, and he says he accepts this verdict, and will carry out the measures ordered by the tribunal in terms of apologies, but he also said there was no genocide.

ORENTLICHER: Well, he was a general during the period of Rios Montt's rule, and given his own background, it was expected that he would put up more resistance than he has to this trial. And as you said, he has said he respects the ruling of the court, but he has said it's not a genocide. It is a very powerful verdict. It's - genocide has been described repeatedly as the crime of crimes, and it's very difficult to prove in a court of law. And that's one of the other reasons why this verdict was widely seen as a landmark.

So, you know, his reticence is notable. I hope that he continues to maintain the position that he will respect the rule of law in this case, as the proceedings go forward.

CONAN: Is it significant that this wasn't, in a sense, a victor's justice that General Rios Montt was not tried by - after the other side had taken over power? The right wing is still in power in Guatemala.

ORENTLICHER: So you know, it's a great question. I think, for me, one of the powerful images that the trial proceedings evoke is that victims who were - survivors of massacres who were children and witnessed terrible, unspeakable crimes being committed as young children, now are adults and faced Rios Montt in court. And so it's almost the opposite image of victor's justice.

You have people who are young, innocent children, decades after this brutality, being able to meet the person they hold most responsible in court. So yes, that is absolutely a striking aspect of this.

CONAN: There was a long civil war there in Guatemala. This was just one chapter. What made it - what made his rule, genocide, was - if the rest of the civil war wasn't?

ORENTLICHER: So it was a very protracted civil war, but during the 17-month period that Rios Montt was the leader of the country, the scorched earth campaign that he presided over was the, by far, the most violent period in this protracted civil war. The United Nations, it was instrumental in establishing a truth commission for the country in the late 1960s after the civil war ended. And it was chaired by a German - a law professor.

And it found that there were acts of genocide against the Ixil Mayans during this period that the trial covered. And so its findings confirmed after extensive research that, again, as you said, there was a very protracted civil war, but this period was, by far, the period of most staggering violence.

And that commission, I believe, found that of the 200,000 people who were killed over the course of the whole civil war, I believe they found that 83 percent were Mayans. And that was the foundation for their finding that acts of genocide were committed.

CONAN: And as I understand it, in the cities of Guatemala (unintelligible) there were many individuals who were targeted, identified as labor leaders or insurgents, one way or another, and murdered or disappeared. In the countryside it was indiscriminate. Everybody was a target.

ORENTLICHER: Well, part of the basis for the prosecution was that, again, specifically, with regards to the Mayans who were targeted, it was - there were statements by the government, I believe by Rios Montt himself, to the effect that all of the Mayans were considered supporters of insurgents and by definition therefore, quote, "legitimate targets."

CONAN: What's the significance that this trial was in Guatemala rather than at The Hague in front of the International Criminal Court?

ORENTLICHER: You know, I just think it's such a triumph for Guatemalans. I mentioned earlier that there have been concerted efforts to bring this trial about. And Guatemalans had been assisted by myriad efforts internationally. The United Nations was involved in an innovative program to bolster domestic prosecutors in Guatemala. There's an - it's a real innovation. And it was an effort to place international expertise within the judicial system of Guatemalans, but helped that Guatemalan prosecutor take the lead in efforts to tackle the hardest cases.

At one point, in the - in Guatemalans' own struggle to obtain justice, Guatemalans brought a case in Spanish courts under that country's very expansive jurisdiction. And the case included Rios Montt led - that proceeding led to the issue, and so then arrest warrant by Spanish judges against Rios Montt. Ultimately the Guatemalan courts quashed the indictment and decided they weren't going to send him to Spain for a prosecution.

Those are just a couple of examples of really concerted efforts that have been undertaken over a long period, some by the international community, but really driven by Guatemalans. It was Guatemalans who brought the proceedings in Spanish courts. They've persevered against incredibly long odds and just deserve enormous credit for their belief in justice in the face of extraordinary impunity.

And as you said, this case could not end up in an international court. And there are times when international courts have played, I believe, an indispensable role in bringing to justice perpetrators who would not otherwise be prosecuted. But I think they're always most successful - international courts, that is - when they provided space for a country to come to terms with its own past.

And in Guatemala, at least at this moment in history, Guatemalans have created that space and they've walked into a space for justice, and have set a model for - that will be admired around the world. And given its history of impunity, that's quite extraordinary.

CONAN: You also mentioned there was a truth in reconciliation process. I think you misspoken and said the '60s. It was, I think, in the '90s.

ORENTLICHER: Oh, I'm so sorry. I did misspeak.

CONAN: What's the distinction and the different roles that trials and truth and reconciliation commissions play?

ORENTLICHER: Well, as the name commission implies, truth and reconciliation commissions are not empowered to convict anyone of a crime. They are - the mandate's there, but their main task is to try to discover the truth. It's typically a much broader truth than the trial truth - that is, a court focuses on the guilt or innocence of the defendants in the dock, and these commissions often have a much broader writ. This particular commission - so to correct myself, it issued its final report in 1999, which, again, gives us some sense of long this process or reckoning has been taking. It was headed by a non-Guatemalan, in part to provide the kind of sense of security to Guatemalans who would face enormous risk and independence.

The other two members of the commission were, however, Guatemalans. And it established a much broader historical record. Its name, in fact, was technically the Commission for Historical Clarification.

CONAN: Well, Diane Orentlicher, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

ORENTLICHER: It's my pleasure.

CONAN: Diane Orentlicher formerly served as deputy for war crimes issues at the State Department, currently teaches law at American University, and joined us today from member station WAMU. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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