As the trial of Guatemala's former military dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt, and his then head of intelligence, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, moved toward its conclusion this afternoon in Guatemala City, an unexpected thing happened: Ríos Montt asked to speak. He has remained mostly silent since the trial began on March 19. Today, he spoke in his own defense for the first time.
"I was not a commander," Ríos Montt shouted before the court just now, arguing his innocence, "I was head of state! I never authorized any plan to exterminate the Ixiles. There is no evidence to prove otherwise."
The former general and his attorneys asked the judge for permission to speak after the "debate" portion of the trial had closed, and the proceedings moved to closing arguments. Judge Yassmin Barrios first denied the request, stating that it was out of order; the defendant was given many opportunities to speak while the debate portion was open, but chose to remain silent then. After further debate and deliberation, and a tirade of insults directed at the judge and Ministerio Publico from defense attorney Francisco Garcia Gudiel, the judges granted Ríos Montt the right to address the court.
I was in a press crush at the general's feet, and shot video of him speaking a few feet away from me, on my iPhone. I'll publish the video of his 55-minute monologue later. For now, a few screengrabs.
“Forgive me, I’m a great-grandfather,” he said to Judge Barrios, smiling, then reaching for water when his throat became dry.
But the man who spoke for nearly an hour just now was a very different Ríos Montt than the elderly gentleman who sat in court silently over these past 26 sessions. He is sharp, forceful, righteously angry, and still very much in charge. At 86, El General is still intimidating—and even frightening—when angry. "I'm going to tell you all a story," he told the court—and as he said this, he was looking at us, the cameramen and photographers gathered at his feet, sitting on the floor like children during a kindergarten story-time.
“I have never ordered genocide,” said Ríos Montt. “I am innocent. ... I never had the intent to destroy any national race, religion, or ethnic group.”
"The command line had a structural hierarchy that defined who was in charge of operations," said Ríos Montt. "The commanding officer in charge of the units in the region of El Quiché is accountable for the actions [described in this court]!"
Notable in the former head of state's testimony: one could interpret these and related statements as shifting blame towards the man who is now president, Otto Perez Molina—he commanded troops in the Ixil area town of Nebaj during Montt's 17-month reign.
"I will never accept responsibility for the charges," said Ríos Montt. "I was the head of State. What is the head of State and commander-in-chief's job? Command and control and administration of the Army. I was in charge of national TERR-I-TORY. Not the local military zones! The local commanders had autonomy!"
"Each commander is responsible for what happened in their zone, and they just updated me with reports."
"My mission as head of state was to reclaim order, because Guatemala was in ruins."
I agree with the observation just posted by Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive, who has been documenting the trial proceedings for riosmontt-trial.org: "It's hard to convey how strange this is. Rios Montt is alternately shouting and whispering, cajoling and ordering, smiling and menacing... a blend of his Sunday sermons and the rant of an aged commander.
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