June 22, 2006 message from the Center for Justice and Accountability:
As torture continues to take center stage around the world in places such as Iraq and Darfur, all eyes should turn to Guatemala City next week where an important step toward justice will take place.
CJA Attorney Almudena Bernabeu will travel to Guatemala where she will take testimony from former head of state General Efra?n R?os Montt and his associates about their responsibility for the widespread human rights abuses committed by the military against the civilian population in Guatemala from 1960 through 1996.
The importance of these proceedings in Guatemala City cannot be underestimated. For dozens of years survivors of the Guatemalan genocide have been denied the opportunity to confront their abusers. The taking of this testimony represents a critical step in building a solid case to prove that the former Guatemalan heads of state bore direct responsibility for the atrocities committed against the civilian population. It is hoped that the case will help to empower the movement for justice and accountability in Guatemala as the Pinochet case did in Chile.
It is fitting that these historic proceedings will begin on June 26th which, coincidentally, is the UN Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
As always, thank you for supporting our mission and our work. The press release follows.
For Immediate Release
June 22, 2006
Contact: Moira Feeney, Esq.
Phone: 415-544-0444 x302,
CJA TO TAKE TESTIMONY FROM FORMER GUATEMALAN PRESIDENT RIOS MONTT AND OTHER HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS
KEY FIGURES IN THE GUATEMALAN GENOCIDE CASE ARE REQUIRED TO TESTIFY IN GUATEMALA CITY ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES
Guatemala City, Guatemala: Starting on June 26, 2006, CJA Attorney Almudena Bernabeu will take testimony from key defendants in the Guatemalan Genocide Case pending before the Spanish National Court including former heads of state General Efra?n R?os Montt and General Oscar Humberto Mejias Victores, and former director of the National Police Colonel German Chupina Barahona. The testimony will be taken in Guatemala City under the auspices of the Spanish investigative judge, Santiago Pedraz, and are scheduled to last one to two weeks. Judge Pedraz will also be questioning the defendants.
In 1999 Novel laureate Rigoberta Mench? Tum and a group of Spanish and Guatemalan non-governmental organizations filed a criminal complaint in the Spanish National Court (SNC) against several senior Guatemalan government officials charging them with terrorism, genocide, and systematic torture. CJA was invited to participate because of our expertise in human rights litigation and joined the complaint in 2004 on behalf of two torture survivors. The case, known as the Guatemalan Genocide Case, is modeled on the Pinochet case which was also brought before the SNC.
From 2000 through 2005, the parties have engaged in contentious legal battles on jurisdiction and the rights of non-Spanish citizens to bring claims in Spain. In a groundbreaking decision issued in September 2005, the Spanish Constitutional High Court held that Spanish courts have jurisdiction over crimes of international importance ? crimes prosecutable in any jurisdiction as prescribed by international treaties including the Geneva Conventions ? regardless of the nationality of the victims and perpetrators. Such crimes include torture, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Procuring the testimony of Rios Montt and other officials represents a critical step towards proving that the former Guatemalan heads of state bore direct responsibility for the atrocities committed against the civilian population. This testimony represents the last step in the investigative phase of the case and will set the stage for a trial.
CJA Attorney Bernabeu, a private prosecutor in the case, states, ?The opportunity to question Rios Montt and his associates represents an historic step towards accountability for the unspeakable atrocities that occurred in Guatemala during the 1980s. We applaud Judge Santiago Pedraz for pursuing the case and the courage of the individual plaintiffs for stepping forward and demanding the truth.?
CJA is a San Francisco-based non-profit organization which works to deter torture and other severe human rights abuses through impaction litigation, education and outreach. CJA is the only U.S. based human rights legal organization solely devoted to seeking justice and accountability on behalf of torture survivors against their perpetrators in the courts.
Center for Justice and Accountability:
By Jennifer Mizgata
May 4, 2006
Though Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered 8 years ago [by graduates of the School of the Americas], his case still remains open in the Guatemalan courts. As the case enters the last round of appeals, it proves to be an important test of Guatemala?s justice system.
As the head of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, Bishop Juan Gerardi was determined to investigate and publicize the brutal human rights abuses that occurred during Guatemala?s 36 year-long civil war. He worked with the Catholic Church on the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REHMI), which interviewed hundreds of people to create a history of the war based on their testimonies. Before the war had even come to an end, Bishop Gerardi and other members of the clergy were visiting communities all over the country and recording the violent experiences Guatemalans had suffered. In the majority of the instances they recorded, the military was responsible for the crimes.
Bishop Gerardi presented the REHMI report, titled Guatemala: Nunca M?s (Never Again) on April 24, 1998. It included not only testimonies, but also research done by the clergy on the military and the conflict. The REHMI report explicitly placed responsibility on the military for 87% of the 200,000 non-combatant deaths and disappearances. It was the first report to specifically name individuals for violent acts (naming over 1,000 individuals and military members). This report was also the first to break the silence surrounding the violence that had occurred and to challenge the impunity that the perpetrators enjoy. The response from the clandestine powers that protect the Guatemalan status quo was immediate; Bishop Juan Gerardi was brutally murdered two days later.
Bishop Gerardi was the most visible human rights defender within the Catholic Church at this time, yet the police investigation of his death did not immediately link his murder to his political activities, nor was it handled in a professional matter. Despite the innumerable barriers the case faced, finally three military officers-- former intelligence chief Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, his son Captain Byron Miguel Lima Oliva and presidential bodyguard Sergeant Obdulio Villanueva-- as well as Gerardi?s assistant priest Mario Orantes, were accused and found guilty of the murder. This is the first case in which high-ranking members of the armed forces have been tried in a civilian court since the 1996 Court of Appeals ruling that removed exclusive military tribunal jurisdiction for officers accused of civilian crimes.
The Gerardi case presents an opportunity for the Guatemalan courts to condemn both the violence that occurred during the civil war and attacks on human rights defenders that take place today. These courts have consistently refused to make landmark rulings necessary to address human rights abuses or challenge the powerful and corrupt military. In an article published at the beginning of the Gerardi trial, the Central America/ Mexico Report declared, "A fair trial in such a prominent human rights case would be a watershed event in Guatemala, offering renewed hope that the country can create a future that is different from its past."
The defense continues to pursue every possible appeals option and has succeeded in having the sentences of the Limas reduced from 30 years in prison to 20 years in prison. (Obdulio Villanueva was killed in prison during the trials.) The sentences were reduced because the military officers were found to be accessories, not the "co-authors" of the crime. This acknowledges that others are also responsible for the murder of Bishop Gerardi, yet no one else has been tried for the crime.
Since this has been the first time officers have been tried in a civilian court, the rulings send a powerful message to Guatemalan society. Although the officers were found guilty, the fact that their sentences were reduced and no effort has been made to expose the full conspiracy to murder Bishop Gerardi or identify any "intellectual authors" of the crime weakens the rulings. The powerful forces behind the crime remain unnamed and unpunished.
Those who have been involved in the court case know firsthand that there are influential parts of society who do not want the Gerardi case to challenge the pervasive state of impunity in Guatemala. Intimidation is a serious issue. Numerous judges, prosecutors and witnesses involved in the case have fled the country due to death threats and attacks. The night before the Gerardi case began, grenades were thrown into one of judges? backyard. Several witnesses have been killed under questionable circumstances. Such intimidation aims to frighten those involved into silence and to reinforce the climate of impunity that allows for human rights violations to abound.
According to the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala (ODHAG), which represents the Catholic Church in the case:
A pattern of harassment has been identified against the members of this office, which intensifies in moments prior to the important judicial hearings for the case of Monsignor Juan Gerardi?s murder or prior to commemorative anniversaries of his death. This cannot be understood separately from the existence of clandestine groups, which through illicit actions try to influence national political life.
Even after ODHAG staff members had their phone numbers changed for security reasons, they have received threats on their cell phones and have reported people following and watching them.
On January 12, 2006, the Superior Court of Justice upheld the sentences against Capt. Lima Oliva, Col. Lima Estrada, and Father Orantes, denying what is their penultimate legal option to appeal the judgment. Days later, the youngest brother of the lead Gerardi case lawyer Mario Domingo Montejo (and brother-in-law of longtime NISGUA activist Jessica Yarrow), Darinel Adilio Domingo Montejo, told his family he was going out with some friends and later phoned to say he would be home the following day. His family never heard from him again, and on January 23, 2006 his corpse appeared at a local morgue.
Darinel?s body showed signs of torture and was brutally mutilated. Days after the murder, one of his limbs was found with his identification card nearby, suggesting that those responsible wanted to make sure his body would be identified. The motive behind the murder of Darinel Domingo Montejo is still unknown. Although Mario is the most prominent activist in the family, all of Darinel?s brothers are politically active. But Darinel was a 21-year old law student at San Carlos University, and unlike his other brothers, his focus was his university work, not political issues.
ODHAG and other organizations have asked for a full investigation into the crime, and ODHAG has also asked the international community to take action to ensure that the death of Darinel does not go unnoticed and unpunished, as so many others do. While it seems clear to many that Darinel?s murder was related to the political activity of the Montejo family, the unfortunate reality is that the police do investigate the vast majority of murders in Guatemala.
Rising violence in Guatemala has led to the murders of many young men and women, and as noted above, these murders frequently go uninvestigated. Thus far, in 2006, an average of 16 murders a day have taken place in Guatemala, a number that has risen from 14 a day in 2005 and 11 a day in 2003. The U.S. State Department?s 2005 Human Rights Report on Guatemala notes that violence is rampant, the police and the judicial system are corrupt and hugely inadequate and have huge inadequacies and generally, violent crimes are generally shrouded by impunity. The report further condemns the fact that "the majority of serious crimes were not investigated or punished."
In this context, it is difficult to say for sure if Darinel?s murder was politically motivated. However, it is also clear that if anyone wanted to send a message to Mario Domingo by attacking his brother, they would not have to worry about repercussions from the police. The combination of widespread violence with a corrupt police force and a weak judiciary creates a bleak setting for citizens and human right defenders alike.
According to journalist Claudia Munaiz, Guatemalans "already don?t believe in the justice system because it doesn?t resolve anything." Clearly, change is needed before people will trust the Guatemalan system to deliver just verdicts. But the decisions to date in the Gerardi case doubtlessly indicate progress for the Guatemalan justice system as the courts have held several military officers accountable and condemned them for past human rights abuses.
It is critical for other components of the State to also challenge human rights abuses. The police must be methodical in their investigations and ensure the safety of human rights defenders and their families. The military and the police must be held accountable for their actions.
The country must use the Gerardi case as a catalyst to address the glaring impunity that has surrounded attacks against human rights defenders and the murders of young people like Darinel in Guatemala. In order to challenge the violence, fear and corruption that have haunted Guatemala, justice must be backed by a legitimate judicial system and a police force that cares more about its citizenry than itself.
Jennifer Mizgata has been interning with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala since November 2005, researching and analyzing impunity for human rights abuses in Guatemala. She graduated from Goucher College with a degree in International and Intercultural Studies in May, 2005.
From the Latin America Working Group
The Advocate, August 2005
For the first time in fifteen years, the House lifted the ban on International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds for Guatemala. The June decision came as part of the House version of the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. The Senate maintained the ban, however, in its draft of the bill. The two versions will be reconciled in conference committee in coming months, which will determine whether or not the Guatemalan IMET ban is lifted.
A congressional decision to allow the release of military funds through IMET would indicate U.S. approval of the Guatemalan government and its human rights record, at a time when the human rights situation in Guatemala is grave. The ban on U.S. military assistance to Guatemala consists of restrictions on both IMET and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds. Both the House and Senate left the ban on FMF funds intact for 2006.
Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), the top democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee, expressed her apprehension on the House floor over lifting the IMET ban. ?I am also concerned that the bill places no conditionality whatsoever on U.S. military assistance to Indonesia and international military education and training for Guatemala. ?[D]espite the Guatemalan government?s noncompliance with military reform stipulated in the Peace Accords, we have removed IMET restrictions on that country as well.?
The ban on U.S. military aid to Guatemala originally came as a response to the Guatemalan military?s flawed human rights record amidst the armed internal conflict. The Guatemalan military has undergone some reforms since the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords, but has not yet made enough progress to justify receiving U.S. military assistance again.
Tell Congress to keep the Guatemalan IMET ban in place! Contact your representative and senators and urge them to keep the ban in the final version of the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill.
Sunday, July 17, 2005; A21
GUATEMALA CITY, July 16 -- About 30,000 police files have been unearthed and confirm that human rights abuses took place in the 1980s at the height of the country's civil war, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman said Saturday.
The documents, discovered in archives of the now defunct National Police, contain information about disappearances in the 36-year civil war during which rights groups estimate 200,000 people died and 50,000 vanished, ombudsman Sergio Morales said.
"This is one of the most important discoveries in recent times," he told local radio.
Security forces are accused of carrying out illegal detentions, disappearances, summary executions, kidnappings and torture during the war, which ended in 1996 with peace accords between the government and leftist insurgents.
The war pitted largely poor rural dwellers against a government backed by the United States and Guatemala's urban elite. The army was accused of wiping out entire villages that it said harbored guerrillas.
Activists from dozens of rights organizations have demanded the Guatemalan government carry out a full examination of the archives.
? 2005 The Washington Post Company