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Genocide on Trial in Guatemala

By Megan Smith

Christina Fetterhoff and Ali Beydoun stand at the Plaza de los Derechos Humanos in Guatemala.

Christina Fetterhoff and Ali Beydoun stand at the Plaza de los Derechos Humanos in Guatemala.

Aspiring human rights attorney Christina Fetterhoff sat in the courtroom in Guatemala City amazed by the dedication and legal wisdom of the prosecution team.

Members of the Ixil Maya community filled the seats around her. Fetterhoff, a second year law student, felt as if their presence was facing down the men on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Fetterhoff was part of a team of students and staff sent to Guatemala in April by American University Washington College of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law to observe and report from the trial.

"I feel doubly lucky to have had this opportunity to watch history while having an amazing group supporting us along the way," Fetterhoff said.

Guatemala’s former head of state, José Efraín Ríos Montt, and former chief of military intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, were on trial for the forced displacement and systematic massacre of the country’s Ixil Mayan population in 1982 and 1983.  

This was the first time a former head of state appeared before a national court on charges of genocide. The international human rights community hopes that it will serve as a turning point for holding leaders accountable for international crimes.

Supporting Practical Human Rights Work

For three days Fetterhoff and Ali Beydoun, director of the law school’s UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic, observed the trial, live tweeting in English and Spanish (via @hrbrief and @UNROWclinic), taking photographs, and providing longer-form analysis of each day’s proceedings.

Back in Washington, the staff of the Human Rights Brief, the Center’s student-run publication with a readership of more than 4,000 practitioners in 132 countries, provided support to the team in Guatemala. Students spent late nights posting, writing, and translating updates for the Brief’s online arm,

Hadar Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, said American University Washington College of Law was the only U.S. law school to send a delegation to the trial. The delegation helped to encourage and preserve a fair trial and due process, she said.

"The Ixil Mayan people have been waiting for justice for more than 30 years but there are strong forces from within the country who do not want the trial to proceed," Harris said. "I believe that our team is playing a small but important role in helping to ensure accountability in Guatemala, expand understanding of the trial internationally, and create a cadre of engaged students who understand the issues involved."

Justice Will Prevail

Beydoun, a human rights attorney, first learned about the situation in Guatemala as a 16-year-old activist.

"It was amazing to watch the trial, to see people from all over the world in attendance, and to see the Guatemalan establishment of criminal procedure in a local court," Beydoun said.

Fetterhoff found it difficult to hear accounts of exhumations of mass graves in the Quiche region presented as evidence of the atrocities committed. She was particularly moved by the lists of victims projected by prosecution witnesses on a large screen in the auditorium. These lists had been populated by eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence over 20 years.

"There were maybe 350 to 400 seats in the auditorium where the trial was taking place, but the Ixil community took up more than a quarter of the seats most days," Fetterhoff said.

Although the law school’s experts believed the court had been nearing a verdict, the trial was suspended on April 19 by a preliminary court judge who had handled the case in its pretrial stage, been recused, and was recently ruled competent by the high court. She ordered that the case return to the pretrial hearings.

"It was mass confusion," Beydoun said. "What we were really seeing was this battle—not between two separate branches of government, but the different levels of the court within the same branch."

After a 12-day suspension, Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, allowed the proceedings to continue. On May 10, Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.

"The Rios Montt conviction, obviously, was the outcome the international human rights community was hoping for," said Fetterhoff, who was pleased with the court’s decision, but hesitant to celebrate.

Less than two weeks after the conviction, the Constitutional Court reversed the decision due to procedural complaints filed by the defense.

Although the proceedings will now be forced to return to the trial phase amid other legal challenges, Fetterhoff remains optimistic that justice will prevail.

"Public testimony of over 100 people about what happened to them and their loved ones in the early 1980s is an amazing judicial feat in a country still struggling with reconciliation," Fetterhoff said.