Dictator in the dock: Guatemala

Pamela Yates, Filmmaker & Co-founder of Skylight Pictures

The culmination of decades of work by the victims and survivors of the Guatemalan genocide forced former General Efraín Ríos Montt to appear in court Thursday, for a hearing to decide whether there was enough evidence to take him to trial on charges of genocide.  This was a major event in Guatemala with hundreds of Maya people coming down from the highlands to gather in front of the courthouse, holding a candle vigil for the their murdered family members.

The prosecution spent hours presenting overwhelming evidence in the form of military documents,  exhumation reports, and photos linking Ríos Montt directly to hundreds of deaths and disappearances. Surviving family members, Ixil Maya in traditional dress, crowded the standing room only courtroom in stunned silence. Some wept. Outside the courthouse, in an open area now named Human Rights Plaza, hundreds more watched the proceedings on a huge screen.

The defense argued that Ríos Montt did not have command responsibility over his Army officers in the highlands, and that he was not responsible for the massacres.

Judge Carol Patricia Flores deliberated for hours and returned her decision to prosecute Ríos Montt on charges of genocide, place him under house arrest, and set bail for USD $65,000. People hugged, cheered and set off firecrackers outside when the Judge read her decision stating that “the extermination of the civilian population was the result of military plans, and that these plans were executed under the command of Ríos Montt.

This is a huge victory for the survivors of the Guatemalan genocide and human rights defenders worldwide, though there is still a lot to do. Tonight in Guatemala we will have a screening for the delegation and our local partners of the feature documentary GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR, that tells the story of the long journey to bring General Ríos Montt to justice.

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Efraín Ríos Montt: Guatemala human rights groups welcome genocide trial, Guardian, 28 January, 2012.

Ríos Montt to Stand Trial for Genocide: Guatemala, InterPress Service, 28 January 2012.