BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A year after Guatemala’s top court overturned the genocide conviction against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, justice remains elusive for civil war victims and further undermines the fragile justice system, Amnesty International has said.
A year ago on Tuesday, Guatemala’s constitutional court annulled the conviction of Rios Montt for his role in the killings, torturing and forced displacement by state security forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group during his rule from 1982 to 1983. The court overturned his conviction, citing procedural errors committed during the trial, 10 days after he was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
“Victims of Rios Montt’s crimes have been fighting for justice for more than three decades and now are again facing numerous obstacles created to deny them that justice,” Sebastian Elgueta, Guatemala researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
“Guatemala owes a debt of justice to those victims, as well as to the rest of the estimated 200,000 victims of the conflict," he said.
Since the annulled conviction, key judicial figures have been replaced or reprimanded and resolutions have been passed that further erode the chances of war victims getting justice, the rights group said.
Claudia Paz y Paz, the attorney general who oversaw the 2013 trial of Rios Montt and earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination last year for her efforts to prosecute those accused of civil war-era abuses, was replaced after the constitutional court decided earlier this year to cut short her period in office. The presiding judge in the case against Rios Montt has been disbarred, Amnesty said.
Last week, Guatemala’s Congress passed a non-binding resolution declaring that genocide never occurred during the 36-year civil war between leftist guerrillas and right-wing governments. Around 200,000 people died and 45,000 disappeared during the war, which ended in 1996.
In response, protesters gathered at the entrance to the Congress building in the capital Guatemala City, holding photos of mass graves and of people who went missing during the civil war.
A United Nations-backed Truth Commission set up under the 1996 peace accords concluded that the military was responsible for more than 85 percent of human rights violations during the war.
Amnesty has called on Thelma Esperanza Aldana, the new attorney general who took office last week, to ensure that those who carried out atrocities during the civil war are held accountable and that a new trial of Rios Montt, expected in January 2015, goes ahead. Rios Montt, 87, is under house arrest awaiting re-trial.
“Hundreds of thousands of victims of Guatemala’s conflict, including relatives of those killed and disappeared, survivors of massacres and sexual violence, expect the new attorney general to continue efforts to secure justice,” Amnesty’s Elgueta said.
“Guatemala is currently at a crossroads. The country should not turn back the clock and return to the days when cases of past human rights violations were simply not investigated or prosecuted.”