Ex-dictator in Guatemala loses immunity.

Starting today, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt loses his immunity from prosecution for whatever role he played in massacres during Guatemala's dirty war.

Television cameras and the attention of most Guatemalans will be focused today on the swearing in of new President Oscar Berger. But human-rights activists will be more interested in another man's departure from power.

Retired Army Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, dictator during one of the bloodiest periods of the country's civil war, will lose the legal immunity he enjoyed as a congressman and become vulnerable to two criminal charges for human-rights abuses.

The 77-year-old evangelical minister ran for the presidency in November and did not seek reelection to congress. Berger, 57, a conservative businessman, won the elections, and Ríos Montt lost the protection from prosecution that all congress members enjoy.

So starting today, Ríos Montt can be prosecuted for some of the 200,000 deaths and disappearances during Guatemalas 36-year armed conflict that occurred during Ríos Montts rule, from March 1982 to August 1983. The conflict ended in a 1996 peace accord.

"After January 14th he will be an ordinary citizen," said human-rights lawyer Fernando López. "And that means he can be tried like an ordinary citizen."

López represents an association of massacre survivors that in June 2001 filed a criminal complaint against Ríos Montt and two members of his military high command for the genocide of Maya people. A special prosecutor is still investigating the charges, and López hopes he will open a case as soon as April.

Ríos Montt also is the target of a complaint in Spain filed by Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous Guatemalan and human-rights activist, inspired by the accusations in Spanish courts against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and members of the Argentine military junta.

Ríos Montt was not available for an interview for this story, but he told The Herald before the elections that he had done nothing wrong.

"Massacres? Yes," he said. "Dead people all over the place? Yes. It happened, but as president I never ordered it."

After today, the prosecutors' chances to take Ríos Montt to court and prove him wrong will be better than ever, lawyers say.

"Ríos Montt's loss of immunity is definitely a point in our favor," said lawyer López. "Lifting immunity takes time and given Ríos Montt's 77 years of age, time is of the essence." Spain is one of the few countries in the world that has adopted the doctrine of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.

Nonetheless, in a March ruling, judges said the courts there would only hear the allegations filed by the Menchú Foundation in cases involving the killing of Spanish citizens in Guatemala, not cases involving only the deaths of Guatemalans.

In the two years it could take for Spains highest court to rule on the Menchú Foundation's appeal, the foundation will pursue the case for the Spanish citizens' deaths, said foundation director Gustavo Meoño.

Despite Ríos Montt's imminent loss of power and immunity, many observers believe that bringing him to trial in Spain is a long shot.

"The immunity made it harder for governments in the international community to support the case, but we are still talking about a former head of state. There just arent that many instances where former heads of state are brought to trial," said Adriana Beltran, of the private Washington Office on Latin America, in a phone interview.

Meoño noted that Ríos Montt's loss of immunity and political power are a boon to the case but largely for diplomatic and political reasons rather than legal ones.

"When we presented the case, Ríos Montt was the president of the congress, having been elected by a record number of votes. This was a factor that took away both strength and credibility from our case," he said. "Now that he has been defeated at the ballot boxes, we have a favorable situation within Guatemala and in the eyes of the international community."

And although he might stand a better chance of going to trial in Guatemala than in Spain, getting a conviction here is highly unlikely, observers say. Attempts to try Guatemalan military officers for rights abuses and war crimes have not been successful, and such an attempt could be even harder in the case of someone of Ríos Montt's stature.

For his part, Ríos Montt told The Herald he would have no problem facing the charges.

"If the courts prosecuting cases [for war crimes] find real evidence against me, I'll go before them, anywhere," he said. "But they'll have to pay my plane ticket."

[Source: By Catherine Elton, The Miami Herald, Miami, Usa, 14Jan04]

DDHH en Guatemala

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This document has been published on 16Jan04 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.