Xeni on PBS NewsHour, in Guatemala: Ríos Montt genocide verdict and aftermath

Before leaving Guatemala today, I spoke with PBS NewsHour host Hari Sreenivasan about the aftermath and significance of Friday's court decision to convict former US-backed military dictator Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The report is archived here on YouTube, and here on the PBS NewsHour website with a full transcript, also below.

Related: My reporter's notebook on NewsHour from Guatemala, and a full report on the trial I produced with Miles O'Brien.

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Guatemala: Rios Montt supporters protest; court considers reparations for genocide victims


Photo: James Rodriguez/mimundo.org. View his full photo-essay here.

[Guatemala City] On Friday, a court in Guatemala convicted former US-backed military dictator Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity, in an historic trial: this was the first time a domestic court in any nation has convicted a former head of state for these crimes.

His co-defendant Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, the head of the G-2 intelligence division under Rios Montt's 17-month regime, was absolved of all charges.

The court's full decision is due to be released today.

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Guatemala: "I am innocent," Ríos Montt tells court in genocide trial, breaking silence

Photo: A still from iPhone video of Ríos Montt speaking, in his defense, for the first time on Thursday May 9, 2013, in Guatemala City. (Xeni Jardin)

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."

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Guatemala: Ríos Montt trial enters final phase, 75 years sought for genocide, crimes against humanity


Ixil Mayan women read about the trial in today's newspaper, while waiting for day 26 of the proceedings against Ríos Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez to begin in the courtroom. The former de facto dictator and his head of Intelligence are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Ixil during a de facto reign from March 1982 to August 1983. Photo: Xeni Jardin, May 9, 2013, Guatemala City.

Here in Guatemala City, the trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez has re-opened for the 26th session. The prosecution is delivering closing arguments, revisiting the wrenching testimony of more than 90 Ixil Maya victims who told the court their personal accounts of rape, assassination, torture, and infanticide committed by Guatemalan Army soldiers.

After recounting horrific stories of sexual violence and mass murder, part of the "crimes against humanity" with which the defendants are charged, Francisco Vivar of victims' representation group CALDH (Center for Human Rights Legal Action) told the court that "There are too many stories from the women to share them all."

The trial began on March 19, and has stopped and started in fits and starts over the last month, as lawyers for the defense pursue tactics to delay or halt the proceedings.

The Open Society Justice Initiative has a solid, easy-to-read analysis by Jo-Marie Burt on yesterday's dramatic events, in which an attorney for the defense screamed threats at the Judge and vowed to not rest until she was "behind bars;" the court then moved into the final phase of the trial.

Snip:

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Guatemala: The science behind historic genocide trial of General Ríos Montt (video report)

Video above: "From Guatemalan Soil, Unearthing Evidence of Genocide," a report I produced with Miles O'Brien for PBS NewsHour on the science behind the historic genocide trial that is in its concluding phase today, here in Guatemala City.

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Guatemalan Government declares State of Siege after Mining Protests: video report

For PBS NewsHour, I spoke with Miles O'Brien from inside the "State of Siege" zone, where the government has declared a state of military occupation in response to protests over a US/Canadian-owned mine. Today, debate continues between Congress, the Constitutional Court, and the administration of President Otto Perez Molina, over whether the State of Siege will be ratified and continue for the entire month declared, or if it will be ended over charges that it is unconstitutional and an act of repression against civil protests.

And as the genocide trial entered its final phase, the Public Prosecutor reminded the court in his closing arguments that the 17 months Rios Montt was in power were, at the time, classified as a "State of Siege."


Setting up for the PBS NewsHour cross-talk with Miles at the Army/police checkpoint in Casillas, the first stop in the state of siege zone, as you enter from Guatemala City. Photo and video: Esteban Castaño of Skylight Pictures.

Guatemala: Why We Cannot Turn Away


José Ceto Cabo, an Ixil civil war survivor who runs a small NGO that aids fellow Ixil survivors, leads Miles and Xeni to a clandestine grave from the armed conflict war. Photo by Xeni Jardin.

GUATEMALA CITY -- When the trial of Guatemalan General and former de facto head of state José Efraín Ríos Montt and his then chief of intelligence José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez began on March 19, 2013, I was in Washington D.C., working with PBS NewsHour correspondent Miles O’Brien on some new science reporting projects in a shared office. The first time I went to Guatemala was around 1989, during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict -- I was a teenager, and the experience was one of the most important and formative of my life. My interest in the peace and justice process following the end of the armed conflict and the lives of the Guatemalan people, has only grown since. So I was happy to learn that Guatemalan independent online media groups were in the courtroom with laptops and modems, live-streaming video and audio of tribunal proceedings.

I tuned in as soon as court opened at 8:30 every morning, Guatemala time. And in our shared D.C. office, over a course of weeks, every day Miles and I worked while listening to audio streaming over the internet from that courtroom far away in Guatemala City. The background audio of our workdays included witness testimonies; defense lawyers yelling at the judges; and elderly Ixil Maya women weeping as they re-told the horrors of being raped, and watching their children, brothers, mothers, and grandfathers be killed.

Both of us were trying to do other work at the time, unrelated to this story. But neither of us could turn away, or turn off the audio, even as the stories grew more graphic, more upsetting, more awful with each witness. Imagine the worst possible thing one human being can do to another. Each testimony was like that, but each in a new and seemingly more horrific way than the last.

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Guatemala: Day 25 of genocide trial opens, amid ever-murky legal hijinks

Photo: James Rodriguez, mimundo.org. An Ixil Mayan woman listens to Spanish-Ixil translation in the courtroom during the historic genocide trial against former de facto dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his head of Intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Both are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Ixil Mayan people during their de facto reign from March 1982 to August 1983.

Here in Guatemala City, the trial of José Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez re-opened for the 25th session, moments ago. The trial began on March 19, and has stopped and started in fits and starts over the last month, as lawyers for the defense pursue tactics to delay (and, ultimately, stop) the proceedings. The Open Society Justice Initiative has a solid, easy-to-read analysis by Jo-Marie Burt on where things stand (or more specifically, where they stood before doors opened 10 minutes ago).

Snip:

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Guatemala: Genocide trial starts then stops; State of Siege near US/Canadian mine continues

Photo: James Rodriguez, a US-Mexican documentary photographer based in Guatemala since 2006, traveled to the State of Siege zone to document the conditions last week in Jalapa and Santa Rosa Guatemala.

A brief update from Guatemala:

The tribunal of General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala from 1982-1983, and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, his former chief of military intelligence, reconvened this morning after a 5-day suspension. The defendants are on trial in Guatemala City for genocide and crimes against humanity. As Jo-Marie Burt at the OSIJ's riosmontt-trial.org blog explained in their most recent analysis, "Responding to the most recent ruling by the Court of Appeals will likely be the first order of business."

I am publishing this post from inside the courtroom, which was less than half full today—there was much confusion over the last 48 hours about whether the trial could be suspended entirely. Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez showed up this morning without attorney Garcia Gudiel, who literally called in sick. Judge Yassmin Barrios briefly responseded to an array of recent court rulings, said "There is no annulment of the trial," then suspended the trial for the day. She indicated to Rios Montt that if Gudiel remains unavailable, he may call back his previous defense team, who walked out of the courtroom in protest on Apr 19.

No one is entirely sure what will happen tomorrow.

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Guatemala: Rios Montt genocide trial resumes amid legal uncertainty, polarized political climate

Ixil witnesses inside the courtroom, Tue. Apr. 30, 2013. At center, Maria Sajiq of Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala. Ms. Sajiq was among the survivors Miles O'Brien and I interviewed in Nebaj recently, for a forthcoming PBS NewsHour report. (Photo: Xeni Jardin)

I am blogging from inside the Supreme Court of Guatemala, where Judge Jazmin Barrios has just re-started the genocide trial of Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez after a two-week suspension, during which a series of obscure legal battles took place.

As Amy Ross at the OSIJ's riosmontt-trial.org blog accurately explains, the historic trial reconvenes "in an environment of complex legal challenges, powerful political forces, and intense emotions."

Listen to a live audio stream of today's proceedings here.

My live-tweets from the courtroom are below.

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Guatemala genocide trial: legal challenges, debates, and attacks on "hairy hippies, foreigners, communists"

Photo: Jaime Reyes, Guatemala. A bus carrying demonstrators from the Ixil area to a pro-Rios Montt march in Guatemala City. The sign reads, “Hairy Hippies and Foreigners, stop making money off the lie of genocide in Nebaj.”

Update, 447pm Guatemala local time: The Constitutional Court has resolved to effectively annul the trial, but it is not yet clear how far back the process has been turned. Prosecution team and victims' rights groups vow to move forward. CALDH: "This is a setback for justice, for the victims, but this is not a defeat."


I've been traveling in Guatemala for the past few weeks, reporting on the genocide trial of former Guatemalan General and dictator Rios Montt, and his then-head of intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Ríos Montt's 1982-1983 regime was supported by the United States; during this era many thousands of non-combatant civilians were killed.

On Friday, a legal power struggle between two judges, initiated by the defense, effectively put the trial on hold. Today, the nation's highest court, the Corte Constitutional, continues to deliberate behind closed doors about whether or not the tribunal may continue. And as the judges review numerous legal appeals, supporters of the Ixil Maya victims (and of the trial itself) and supporters of Rios Montt and the Army (who want the trial to be thrown out) face off in increasingly charged public protests.

As I publish this post, a large assembly of former civil patrollers ("patrulleros," mostly indigenous people who were conscripted by the Army to fight in the counterinsurgency), Army veterans and their families and allies, and Ixil persons transported in from Nebaj, have descended upon Guatemala City in a caravan of buses with provocative banners.

Ricardo Mendez-Ruiz of Guatemalan Foundation Against Terrorism (Fundación Contra El Terrorismo), with Ixil people transported to Guatemala City from Nebaj for a demonstration supporting Rios Montt, and condemning the genocide trial. Photo: skylight.is.

One sign on one of the pro-Ríos Montt buses carrying in protesters from the Ixil area reads, “Hairy Hippies and Foreigners, stop making money off the lie of genocide in Nebaj” (the Ixil area at the center of this tribunal is generally defined as a zone around three villages: Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal). Another banner reads, “Don’t shame the Ixiles with this genocide stuff, because it’s a lie.”

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Grassy field in Florida was once secret CIA base from which Guatemalan coup was launched

There's a fascinating article in the Miami Herald today about a grassy field in Opa-locka, Florida which was the site of the secret CIA base where the US-led coup of Guatemala was launched in 1953.

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Guatemala: "Dictator in the Dock," video updates from Rios Montt genocide trial

Skylight Films, the team behind "Granito" and "When the Mountains Tremble," have been filming the trial of General Efraín Rios Montt since day one, and they're posting video updates from here in Guatemala City.

"We want the world to be present during this important time in Guatemalan history," they say. Above and below, the first three episodes of their "Dictator in the Dock" series: ANTICIPANDO LA JUSTICIA, UNSPEAKABLE CRUELTY, and ORDER IN THE COURT.

Also, check out their "Granito Memoria" online testimony project, gathering the stories of armed conflict survivors.

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LIVEBLOG: Guatemala—Rios Montt genocide trial, Day 21. Defense attorneys walk out; Preliminary Court Judge annuls trial, AG vows legal battle

Rios Montt, moments after his attorneys walked out in protest on Thursday, April 18, day 20 of the trial; he is seated alone w/co-defendant Sanchez. Photo: @xeni.

I am blogging and live-tweeting from inside the Guatemalan Supreme Court in Guatemala City this morning, on day 21 of the trial of former Guatemalan General and genocide and de factor dictator Rios Montt, and his then-head of intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Ríos Montt's 1982-1983 regime was supported by the United States; during this era many thousands of non-combatant civilians were killed.

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Guatemala—Rios Montt genocide trial, Day 20. Will case be thrown out by Constitutional Court?

Rios Montt, moments after his attorneys walked out in protest today, seated alone w/co-defendant Sanchez. Photo: @xeni.

I am blogging from inside the Guatemalan Supreme Court in Guatemala City this morning, on day 20 of the trial of former Guatemalan General and genocide and de factor dictator Rios Montt, and his then-head of intelligence Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Ríos Montt's 1982-1983 regime was supported by the United States; during this era many thousands of non-combatant civilians were killed.


UPDATE, 9:48am Guatemala time: Attorneys for Rios Montt just walked out of the courtroom in protest; they'd demanded the trial to be canceled. Ríos Montt's supporters stand and cheer. Judge Jazmin Barrios yells "Stop! Stop!" after them; demands that security follow defense lawyers and bring them back to the courtroom; her order met with massive screams and cheers and applause throughout courtroom. Ríos Montt speaks for the first time: I'm trying to call my attorneys, but they aren't answering. I have another lawyer, but he's busy with another case. Co-defendant Sanchez tells judge he lacks funds to hire a new lawyer. Barrios offers to provide them with public defenders. Follow this Twitter list for live tweets from the courtroom.


Today, the defense renewed their demands that the trial be shut down and annulled. Supreme Court Judge Jazmin Barrios has denied their request. Judge Carol Patricia Flores will convene the Constitutional Court of Guatemala at 2pm to consider suspending the trial, as the defense have demanded.

It's not clear what will happen today, but it seems the trial will likely come to some form of closure today or tomorrow.

Rios Montt's fate now essentially rests in the hands of 2 female judges. As one reporter said, “One gets the sense the shit is about to hit the fan.”

My report from Tuesday's proceedings is here; my post from Wednesday is here.

From a recap by Kate Doyle at www.riosmontt-trial.org:

Wednesday, April 17, was a chaotic and tense day in the courtroom. Judge Yassmin Barrios began by observing that once again only two defense witnesses were present to testify before the tribunal, while some ten witnesses remained to be heard. The judge ordered Ríos Montt’s counsel, Marco Antonio Cornejo, to leave the room and personally call each of them on the phone to advise them that they were legally required to attend. Before permitting Cornejo to exit, she called the first witness present, Gustavo Porras, into the chamber and asked him to take his place in the witness chair facing the tribunal. Porras and the entire courtroom of several hundred spectators then waited in silence until the lawyer returned some 15 minutes later.
Things became more dramatic as the day went on.

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