3 August 2006 Edition

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International - Arrest orders against former dictators and top military officers

Guatemalan genocide under scrutiny

Guatemalan human rights activists have met with members of the UN High Commission for Human Rights to discuss state amnesty laws in response to a landmark decision by a Spanish judge on 7 July to issue international arrest orders against former dictators and top military officers on charges of genocide after more than two decades of impunity.

Guatemala, with one the hemisphere's highest percentages of indigenous people, was also the site of a brutal decades-long civil war that culminated in actual genocide against the indigenous majority just 20 years ago. Since Guatemala's return to democracy and subsequent peace accords, Maya Indians have continued to press demands for truth and justice as the only path to true reconciliation.

Efraín Ríos Montt, who served as president of the Guatemalan National Congress as recently as 2004, is one of eight individuals sought for crimes including genocide, terrorism, torture and illegal detention.

According to a UN-sponsored Truth Commission the 36-year civil conflict, in which Ríos Montt´s presidency (1982-1983) was one of the bloodiest, resulted in the death or disappearance of upwards of 200,000 people. The overwhelming majority were indigenous Maya. They calculate that at least 626 state-led massacres occurred during this period. The general's 'scorched earth' campaign reduced hundreds of villages to smithereens and their inhabitants were forced into military-controlled 'model villages'. Over a million people were forcibly displaced.

In June this year, Spain's National Court Judge Santiago Pedraz launched a fact-finding mission to Guatemala to investigate claims filed in 1999 by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum. She said there could be no justice for war crimes under Guatemala's judicial system, and called upon survivors of the genocide to "prepare our legal complaints in anticipation the day that we have a legitimate tribunal". In particular, Pedraz was looking into the 1980 government-led siege of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City which resulted in 35 deaths (including Menchu Tum's father) in addition to the murder of four Spanish priests.

Although Pedraz had planned to collect testimony from the accused during his trip, their defense lawyers filed multiple appeals and successfully prevented the hearings.

Ríos Montt's lawyer, Francisco Palomo, told the Guatemalan daily El Periodico that the Spanish court's move would not affect the former president. "The [Guatemalan] amnesty decree was a phase prior to the Peace Accords which also protected Rigoberta Menchu, without recognizing her as a terrorist, as well as my client in September of 1990, without recognizing that he had not committed a single illegal act."

However, while former members of the military involved in the dictatorships and genocide are still very much present in the country's political life, Guatemala remains dangerous for those who persist in probing into the past. In 1998, Bishop Juan José Girardi, who led an investigation into 1980s human rights abuses, was assassinated by unknown assailants. Members of the military were later arrested, charged and sentenced as responsible for his death. The following year, U.S. President Bill Clinton visited the country, and publicly apologized for U.S. complicity in "widespread repression".

Guatemala's Anthropol-ogical and Forensic Foundation continues to investigate the massacres of indigenous people perpetrated by the country's military forces in the late 1970s and early '80s - as well as the "disappearance" of thousands of dissidents throughout the years of dictatorship. In 1999, a UN Truth Commission found the Guatemalan security forces to be responsible for 94% of the human rights violations that occurred during the war, and rebuked the US for its close ties to the military regimes that ran Guatemala.

In a highly-publicized case which finally brought world attention to the human rights disaster that was Guatemala, the Western Hemisphere's highest international court issued an historic ruling against that country's military forces. In December 2000, after deliberating for several years, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) found the Guatemalan military guilty of secret detention, torture, extrajudicial execution and obstruction of justice in the case of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a Maya guerilla leader who was captured by the Guatemalan army in 1992 - and secretly held and tortured at a clandestine prison for over a year. His case was but one of many, but his wife, Jennifer Harbury, was a US citizen and an attorney, who engaged in lengthy hunger strikes in both Guatemala and Washington in an effort to save his life. In 1995, following Congressional hearings, Senator Robert Torricelli confirmed Bamaca's extrajudicial execution at the hands of Guatemalan military officials - one of them a paid CIA informant, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez.

Also listed in the Spanish arrest orders are ex-presidents Óscar Mejía Víctores and recently deceased Romeo Lucas García. Pedraz explained that due to a lack of adequate documentation of Romeo Garcia´s death, his name was also included in the official calls for capture and detention.

Lawyers with the Centro de Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos (Center for Human Rights Legal Action), who have attempted since 2000 to advance charges of genocide against the accused through Guatemalan courts, emphasized that the Spanish arrest orders spring from the failure of the state's justice system to hold the men accountable for their crimes.

Raúl Nájera, a member of HIJOS-Guatemala, an organization comprised of daughters and sons of persons 'disappeared' or killed by the military, told people gathered on the plaza, "If the order for capture is not executed, Guatemala itself will become the prison for those guilty of genocide."

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