Today was a historic day for Guatemala. A few hours ago, after a long day of heady hearings, a Guatemalan court opened a criminal case for genocide against Retired Military General Efraín Ríos Montt and ordered him detained under house arrest. Now 85, the retired general must face trial accused of being responsible for one hundred massacres, which produced a death toll of one thousand, seven hundred and seventy one victims. Ríos Montt, who until recently enjoyed immunity after serving nearly two decades as Congressman in Guatemala, had been de facto president during the most brutal 17 months of the 36 year-long civil war, between 1982 and 1983. When asked in court today if he understood the charges he faced, Ríos Montt said into the microphone “I understand perfectly.” Then, instead of making a formal declaration of guilt or not guilt, he stated a preference for silence. Outside the courthouse today, indigenous Guatemalans laid red rose petals spelling impunity no more. Meanwhile, the Guatemalan Congress ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
At the 2010 SALT dinner, Edgar Pérez , the Guatemalan lawyer who represents the victims in the wartime cases, made an appeal that we bear witness to the fruits of an arduous struggle of the war victims in Guatemala for justice. Edgar was present today in court, which prompts me to renew his appeal to all of us. The best way to help is to help fund the victims to attend the upcoming hearings. In less than a month, on February 23, a criminal court in Guatemala will take the testimony of witnesses and survivors of Las Dos Erres massacre. In three ill-fated days, more than 500 men, women and children were brutally executed and then dumped into mass graves, which were later exhumed more than a decade later by the Forensic Anthropology Team of Guatemala. I met one of the few survivors as a human rights lawyer at the Center for Justice and International Law. His memory still haunts me. He was eight when it all happened. When I introduced myself to him, in a clumsy effort to break the ice, I described myself as part Guatemalan. He immediately shuttered, and the fear and pain in his eyes hurt my soul.
At the hearing the court will hear from dozens of victims who are traveling hours from rural parts of Guatemala and must pay for transportation, housing and food. They are asking for our help. Any little bit will help. Please write your checks to Rights Action with the words “ Lawyers Without Borders-Guatemala” in the memo section and please mail the checks to Raquel Aldana at Pacific McGeorge School of Law; 3200 Fifth Avenue; Sacramento, CA 957817.