GENEVA (13 May 2013) -- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has welcomed the first-instance conviction on Friday of Guatemala’s former de facto head of state, José Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity.
“Guatemala has made history by becoming the first country in the world to convict a former head of state for genocide in its own national court,” Pillay said. “I salute the victims, relatives and survivors whose courage and perseverance made this possible against all odds, as well as the lawyers, prosecutors and judges who carried out their duties under exceptionally difficult circumstances in the face of serious threats and intimidation.”
Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years for his leading role, during his time in office between 1982-83, in the killing of 1,771 people, as well as the forced displacement, starvation, torture, and systematic rape and sexual assault that were deliberately inflicted on Guatemala’s Mayan Ixil communities.
The court found that the crimes were committed in accordance with military plans intended to exterminate those who were considered “enemies,” which included not only guerrillas but also the civilian Ixil community that the authorities perceived to be supporting them. A three-judge panel, presided over by Judge Jazmin Barrios, concluded that Ríos Montt had ordered the plans that led to the genocide, had full knowledge of the atrocities committed, and did nothing to stop them despite having the power to do so.
In all, some 200,000 people – over 80 per cent of them of indigenous Maya origin – were killed during the 36-year-long war, but the period of Ríos Montt’s rule is considered one of the bloodiest in the conflict. His co-defendant, former head of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, was found not guilty of the same charges.
“Despite all the obstacles, interruptions and numerous legal challenges which slowed down the trial, Guatemala has shown the world, and even more importantly its own people, that it is possible to address past crimes and bring justice,” the High Commissioner said. “This historic verdict shows that no one is above the law, and that Guatemala’s institutions have the strength and solidity to carry this through – provided there is the will to do so.”
Pillay praised the peaceful conduct of the trial, despite the tense political environment in which it took place. She urged the authorities to continue to provide effective security for all those involved in the trial, including lawyers, prosecutors, victims, witnesses and human rights defenders, many of who have been threatened repeatedly. She also urged respect for the verdict and sentence and continued adherence to due process of law.
“Guatemala can now truly begin to heal the wounds of the past, as the suffering of so many people has been formally recognised,” Pillay said, praising the judges for their stated recognition that “for peace to exist, there must first be justice.”
“Even five years ago, few people would have thought such a verdict was possible in Guatemala,” the High Commissioner said. “Now the country has shown that justice for serious international crimes can – and should – take place anywhere and everywhere that they occur. This trial will bring encouragement to people all over the world struggling for justice for crimes committed thirty years ago, and for crimes being committed today. For this reason, the trial and conviction of Ríos Montt has been of monumental importance at the international as well as the national level.”
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