The top United Nations human rights official has applauded the beginning of the “historic” trial of Guatemala’s former head of State and former head of intelligence who are both accused of crimes committed in the Central American nation over 30 years ago, and urged local authorities to ensure the execution of a fair and independent legal proceeding.
“I welcome the beginning of this historic trial, and I hope that it will signal the arrival of long-awaited justice for thousands of victims of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed during the murderous 36-year conflict in Guatemala,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said today in a press release.
She also pointed out that it was “the first time, anywhere in the world,” that a former head of State was being tried for genocide by a national tribunal.
Former president Efraín Ríos Montt and former intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez stand accused of committing genocide and crimes against humanity for their roles in Guatemala’s conflict, which spanned from 1960 to 1996, and saw, according to news reports, an estimated 200,000 killed or disappeared.
The trial is set to start on Tuesday after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court rejected a writ of protection filed by Ríos Montt’s lawyers citing a 1986 amnesty law.
Ms. Pillay commended the Constitutional Court’s decision and emphasized that genocide and crimes against humanity “should never be covered by amnesties,” adding that “along with war crimes, these are among the gravest crimes known to mankind.”
During the conflict, Guatemala became the theatre for numerous displays of brutality which were ultimately catalogued and revealed by the UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission of Guatemala in its report on the war.
At the press conference announcing the release of the report at UN Headquarters in 1999, two members of the Commission, Christian Tomuschat of Germany and Otilia Lux de Cotí of Guatemala, described the “atrocious nature” of some of the massacres committed by Government forces against ethnic enclaves during the conflict.
In particular, they noted the Government’s “scorched earth” policy which led to the destruction of entire villages and the murders of all their inhabitants, including women, children, babies and elderly people. The two experts also stated that pregnant women and babies had been victimized with “particular brutality.”
“Until quite recently, no one believed a trial like this could possibly take place in Guatemala, and the fact that it is happening there, 30 years after the alleged crimes were committed, should give encouragement to victims of human rights violations all over the world,” Ms. Pillay stated.
Voicing concern over a recent wave of attacks against journalists, judicial personnel and human rights defenders in the country, she urged authorities to take extra steps in ensuring the protection of all those involved in the high-profile case.
“The protection of all those involved in this crucial case is essential, if the rule of law is to be seen to be respected, and truth and justice are to prevail in Guatemala.”