Genocide on Trial in Guatemala

Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Sends Trial Observation Mission

In April, American University Washington College of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law sent a team of students and staff to observe and report from the historic genocide trial taking place in Guatemala.

A delegation consisting of second year law student Christina Fetterhoff and Ali Beydoun, director of the law school’s UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic (pictured left), flew to Guatemala to observe firsthand the trial that began on March 19.  

Guatemala’s former head of state, José Efraín Ríos Montt, and former chief of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, are on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity for the forced displacement and systematic massacre of the country’s Ixil Mayan population during time they were in power in 1982 -83.

This is the first time a former head of state has appeared before a national court on charges of genocide, and the international human rights community hopes that it will serve as a significant turning point for holding leaders accountable for international crimes.

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For three days the team of Fetterhoff and Beydoun observed the trial, live tweeting in English and Spanish (via @hrbrief and @UNROWclinic), taking photographs, and providing longer-form analysis of each day’s proceedings.

Back in Washington, the staff of the Human Rights Brief, the Center’s student-run publication with a readership of more than 4,000 practitioners in 132 countries, provided support to the team in Guatemala. Students spent late nights posting, writing, and translating updates for the Brief’s online arm, hrbrief.org

According Hadar Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, AUWCL is the only U.S. law school to send a delegation to the trial and to be reporting from the field. The presence of the delegation helped to encourage and preserve a fair trial and due process, she said.

“The Ixil Mayan people have been waiting for justice for more than 30 years but there are strong forces from within the country who do not want the trial to proceed,” said Harris. “I believe that our team is playing a small but important role in helping to ensure accountability in Guatemala, expand understanding of the trial internationally, and create a cadre of engaged students who understand the issues involved.  It has provided an incredible learning experience for our student community.”

Upon return from Guatemala, the team held a lunchtime debrief at the law school followed by a coffee hour discussion at the School of International Service to help share their experiences – and the significance of the trial – with the American University community.

“I feel doubly lucky to have had this opportunity to watch history while having an amazing group supporting us along the way,” said Fetterhoff.

The Trial is Significant – But Its Outcome is Unclear: “It is Mass Confusion”

Beydoun first learned about the situation in Guatemala as a 16 year-old activist. Now as a human rights attorney, he appreciated the opportunity to witness efforts at accountability and justice for those affected.

“It was amazing to watch the trial, to see people from all over the world in attendance, and to see the Guatemalan establishment of criminal procedure in a local court,” said Beydoun.

According to Fetterhoff, it was difficult hearing accounts of exhumations of mass graves in the Quiche region presented as evidence of the atrocities committed. She was particularly moved by the lists of victims projected by prosecution witnesses on a large screen in the auditorium. These lists had been populated by eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence over a period of 20 years.

“There were maybe 350-400 seats in the auditorium where the trial was taking place, but the Ixil community took up more than a quarter of the seats most days,” said Fetterhoff.

Despite the international support for the trial and lauded judges handling the case, Beydoun was skeptical about how successful it would be. Procedural and political snags such as changes in the defense teams, late submission of evidence, and a statement by the President of Guatemala claiming the trial was dividing Guatemala, could inhibit the trial’s success, he said.

Although the law school’s experts believed the court had been nearing a verdict, the trial was suspended on April 19 by a preliminary court judge who had handled the case in its pretrial stage, been recused, and was recently ruled competent by the high court. She ordered that the case return to the pretrial hearings. Now Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, will decide if the proceedings should continue. According to Beydoun, the Constitutional Court says there are at least 12 pending defense motions that must be decided before the lower court can proceed with the trial.

“It is mass confusion,” said Beydoun. “What we are really seeing is this battle—not between two separate branches of government, but the different levels of the court within the same branch.”

Fetterhoff remains optimistic that justice will prevail.

“Public testimony of over 100 people about what happened to them and their loved ones in the early 1980s is an amazing judicial feat in a country still struggling with reconciliation,” said Fetterhoff. “It is important not to lose sight of the victims in the midst of the procedural circus.”

Pending the resumption of proceedings in the trial, the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law is planning to send another delegation of students to the trial to provide more in-depth coverage of the trial if and when it proceeds. Their coverage will be found at hrbrief.org.

“We are proud and grateful for the opportunity the Center has had to focus attention on accountability for genocide in Guatemala,” said Harris.  “Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and their families are still seeking justice.  Our team of students and the great outreach of hrbrief.org are playing important roles in helping to expand understanding of what is going on Guatemala, and by doing that, our student community is learning as well.”

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