Guatemala: Rios Montt genocide trial struggles toward completion as confusion reigns in courtroom

A 1982 photograph by Jean-Marie Simon of Otto Perez Molina; he commanded the Guatemalan Army in Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala at the time, and is now President. Nebaj is part of the region at issue in a genocide trial against former head of state Ríos Montt. The military hat in this photo indicates status as a Kaibil.

[UPDATE, 2pm Guatemala time: Judge Yassmin Barrios has suspended the trial for five days, at the request of the defense. The trial is scheduled to re-open on May 7, 2013.]

A brief update from Guatemala, where the genocide trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt and his former head of intelligence Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez continues today. The trial is historic not only for Guatemala: never before has a domestic court in any nation tried a former head of state for genocide.

The OSIJ blog has an excellent explainer on the strange state of confusion the trial is in today; here's a previous update from them.

Judge Yassmin Barrios' courtroom in Guatemala City is packed with press, witnesses, the accused, and attorneys. At the time of this blog post, a new de facto defense team that consists of one lawyer previously expelled for bad behavior in the courtroom, and a public defender who asked the court to remove him from the casel—well, they're currently playing a video titled simply "Guerrilla," and displaying a slideshow with graphic images of wounded soldiers. If you can figure out what's going on, you're a few steps ahead of me.

An Ixil girl, 1982. Photo: Jean-Marie Simon.

Follow this Twitter list for live-tweets from the courtroom.

• An excerpt from today's proceedings update by Dr. Amy Ross:

As the trial advances toward a conclusion, some have also noted the significance of the public statements of President Otto Perez Molina. In the weeks and months before the trial began, Perez Molina said little publicly in relation to the charges, the trial, or its likely impact. However, at the start of the trial, the president expressed the opinion that "there was no genocide in Guatemala."

On April 4, a prosecution witness told the court that Perez Molina—then the officer of military installations in Salquil Grande, Nebaj and, according to the witness, known as Tito Arias—had ordered soldiers to burn and loot villages. The president reportedly complained that his rights had been violated by the testimony presented in court. On April 25, President Perez Molina acknowledged that he had operated under the pseudonym Tito Arias during the war, but denied that he was responsible for atrocities.

Perez Molina had previously acknowledged his pseudonym and role, including in a 2000 column in Prensa Libre. In that column, he identified that, under the name "Tito," he was stationed in Santa Cruz del Quiché commanding troops in the Ixil Triangle. He asserted that his military commands to his troops during the war were to "win the confidence of the population" in order to defend them and secure their collaboration and respect.

In the Prensa Libre column, Perez Molina also described a population afraid of both the guerrillas and the military, and living in "subhuman conditions" (condiciones infrahumanas). He stated that part of the military strategy of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres, or EGP) was to "involve the whole family, that is to say, not just the young people of fighting age, but also women, children and the elderly" (involucrar a la familia completa, es decir, no solo a los jovenes de edad de combatir, sino tambien a mujeres, ninos y ancianos).

Recently, with the trial enmeshed in the legal quagmire of competing legal challenges, President Perez Molina has expressed support for due process, the rule of law, and support for the independence of the judiciary. He affirmed that he would not interfere in the process, and described it as "a very emblematic case which has polarized Guatemalan society and revived the period of the armed conflict" (un caso muy emblematico que ha polarizado a la sociedad guatemalteca y ha revivido el momento del enfrentamiento armado).

• There's a related piece in the Guatemalan news daily El Periodico today about President Molina's role in the trial, and in the military history of Guatemala during the years at issue in the trial: "Otto Pérez Molina, an emerging protagonist in the genocide trial." The photo below ran with the article, with the following caption: "Major Tito Arias, the nom de guerre of Otto Pérez when he commanded the Army in Nebaj, Quiché, in 1982." Photo by Jean-Marie Simon.

• The government has arrested a man identified as "a former guerilla," and he will face crimes against humanity charges. The timing of the arrest is conspicuous, in the context of the genocide trial.

• As the proceedings continue inside the court, another significant news event is taking place about an hour away from Guatemala City. The government has declared a state of siege ("estado de sitio") in four communities near the disputed San Rafael Mine. President Molina just gave a press conference: 3,500 Army troops are participating in the military operation to bring "peace and stability" to the areas after civil unrest involving community groups opposed to the mine—and, according to the government, after organized crime groups including Los Zetas "took advantage of instability" to manipulate vulnerable local communities into participating in crime.

President Molina heads to Costa Rica tomorrow for the two-day Presidents' Summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA). Also in attendance at this annual conference for Central American heads of State: United States President Barack Obama.

• A related read: Kendra Wergin was part of a National Lawyers Guild delegation at the Ríos Montt trial, in recent weeks. She wrote this editorial about her experience, and the reasons she believes the trial should continue unimpeded:

When we asked how we could help, we always heard the same answer: "It means so much just that you are here." Throughout the week of frenzied speculation about the future of the trial, our friends in Guatemala urged us to continue sharing our experience with people in the United States. They believe that international pressure can still help them to finish what has been a fair, impartial trial.
Ríos Montt's advanced age means that time is of the essence. If the Constitutional Court decides that the trial must revert back to the beginning, Ríos Montt could well be 88 before any new trial begins. If he dies, the opportunity to establish responsibility for genocide, and possibly the opportunity to establish that genocide took place, will be lost forever.

• Jean-Marie Simon, the photographer whose photographs you see in this post, is the author of "Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny." The book contains her photos from Guatemala, during the early 1980s. For Boing Boing readers who are in Guatemala and wish to purchase a copy: the book is currently on sale for Q100 (about half off) at Librería Sophos until May 15.