Genocide Trial Opens in Guatemala: Interview with Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, Attorney General


Photo: A Guatemalan woman watches the opening day of the trial of former dictator Rios Montt, March 19, 2013. Aída Noriega/Plaza Publica

On Tuesday, March 19, the genocide trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt began at the High Risk Tribunal in Guatemala. This is a historic day for Guatemala but also for the field of transitional justice: is the first real attempt to try genocide and crimes against humanity at a national level, in the country where the crimes were committed.

To talk about this historic development, we talk with us one of the key players in Guatemala’s pursuit to end impunity: Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey.

Today is the start of General Ríos Montt’s genocide trial. What does it mean for Guatemala that this trial is finally taking place?

It’s a very important step forward in terms of strengthening the rule of law in the country. It’s a very strong message that these serious crimes will be prosecuted regardless of who the perpetrator and the victims are. It also says that, at last, the courtroom is the place to discuss things as important as the criminal liability of top state officials—and former officials, in this case.

Your office, the Public Ministry [similar in function to US Department of Justice], has played a key role in moving this case forward. What does it mean for the Public Ministry that Ríos Montt is now facing charges like genocide?

As the Public Ministry, we have a constitutional obligation to prosecute crimes, especially serious crimes against life, as in this case, and the other serious human rights violations that occurred during the war. For us at the Public Ministry it is very important that we do our job properly because it legitimizes both our own role and that of the justice system in general. If serious crimes like these are not brought to trial, the public loses confidence in the justice system.

The case against Ríos Montt was originally filed in 1999 by the human rights’ organization CALDH [Center for Legal Action on Human Rights] and the victims’ organization AJR [Association for Justice and Reconciliation]. Could you briefly describe what the legal process has been up until now?

The investigation indeed continued over the years [since then] and it’s meant that this is an extremely solid case. The fundamental obstacle in previous years was that the defense filed a series of motions to delay both the initial [witness] statements and the trial itself. This was overcome by very important judgments by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ruled that all obstacles impeding the trial of cases during the war had to be removed.

At the same time, [since 1999] in Guatemala we’ve had access to forensic investigations which permit the identification of people with DNA. Various individuals, not in this case but in other major cases, have been identified. People thought to be disappeared [have now been identified] thanks to DNA.

There was also a very important discovery: the historic archives of the National Police and the handover of military documents. Some of these military documents will serve as proof at the genocide trial.

Among some of the delay tactics you mentioned earlier, last week the Constitutional Court rejected an amnesty plea for Ríos Montt filed by his defense lawyers. What does this ruling by the Constitutional Court mean?

We at the Public Ministry applaud this decision by the Constitutional Court. We believe it reflects both domestic and international law preventing amnesty in these cases. So we see it as very, very positive.

The genocide case focused above all on the violence against Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, especially the Ixil Mayans. Do you think this trial will help bring attention to the ongoing marginalization and victimization suffered by these communities in Guatemala? What would you like the legacy of this case to be for Guatemalan society?

I think the biggest legacy will be that all our citizens understand that nobody is above the law; that people can’t commit these serious crimes and expect them to go unpunished. We hope the verdict helps us prevent these kinds of atrocities from ever happening in Guatemala again.

And in terms of the Mayan people specifically, how do you think this trial will affect them?

I think it will show how historical and structural conditions in the country created a framework that made it easier to commit crimes as serious as genocide against the Mayan people. I hope this verdict will not only honor them as victims of such a serious crime but also help establish more democratic, horizontal relations among all citizens, among all the different ethnic groups that live together in this country.

Guatemala has some of the highest crime and murder rates. Members of the justice system have been attacked in the past for their work in the courts. Are government employees working on the case against Ríos Montt in danger? What kind of risks are the Public Ministry and judicial institutions up against, and how can they be overcome?

So far we’ve encountered three types of attack. One is the series of motions that have been filed simply to prevent the trial from taking place. Another, the one we’re most worried about, is that trumped-up criminal charges have been filed against magistrates on the Supreme Court, against me, and against members of my family. And the third is that there’s a highly-orchestrated campaign in the media to discredit the work we’re doing. People don’t understand that we’re only doing our constitutional duty and they try to portray it as an ideological issue.

The international community will be following this case very closely, because it’s a historic event. What message would you like to send them? Why is this trial important at an international level?

In the case of crimes as serious as this, it’s not just in Guatemala’s interests that they be tried in court, it’s in the interests of the international community as a whole. So I’d like to say how grateful we are for their support all these years, and ask them to continue supporting us at this extremely delicate moment.

Follow the prosecution of Rios Montt through a special trial-monitoring website from Open Society Justice Initiative. This interview is available in Spanish