As Rios Montt Trial Nears End, a Look Back at US Role in Guatemala’s Civil War

May 11th, 2013 - by admin

Jenny Marder / PBS NewsHour – 2013-05-11 20:52:59

As Rios Montt Trial Nears End, a Look Back at US Role in Guatemala’s Civil War
Jenny Marder / PBS NewsHour

(May 10, 2013) — Update: 2:50 p.m. ET | After seven weeks of testimony, a verdict may be reached today on the trial of Guatamala’s José Efraín Ríos Montt, who is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, reports Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, who co-produced a PBS NewsHour piece on the subject that aired this week. She is in the courtroom, covering the trial.

That report, by NewsHour Science Correspondent Miles O’Brien, focused on the role of science in the trial, namely how anthropologists use forensics to search for evidence of genocide committed during Rios Montt’s 1982-1983 rule, a particularly violent phase of the country’s 36-year civil war.

The scientists’ process includes analyzing skeletons from clandestine graves, grinding up teeth and bones to extract DNA and poring over satellite images of the Guatemalan countryside captured before and after Ríos Montt’s rule. [Watch the full report below.]

From Guatemalan Soil, Unearthing Evidence of Genocide

We also have an inside look from Jardin at the reporting and wrenching interviews she and O’Brien conducted with indigenous Mayans, who say they were victims of the regime’s violence.

During the production of the piece, we dug into the vault and found this in-depth MacNeil/Lehrer Report video from Oct. 25, 1982 on the violence and instability across Guatemala and the actions of Rios Montt.

Gavin Hewitt from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports from Guatemala in 1982 on violence and instability across the country under the Rios Montt regime.

We also found this MacNeil/Lehrer Report piece from Nov. 30, 1983, on the debate over the US role in Guatemala. It was filmed just after the Reagan administration announced the end of a five-year embargo on military shipments to Guatemala, citing human rights progress and claiming that Ríos Montt had been given a “bum rap.” You’ll see in these interviews a split between US administration officials and human rights organizations.

For example, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Eliott Abrams tells Jim Lehrer that political killings in Guatemala had reduced under the Rios Montt leadership, from hundreds a month to 40-50 a month and calls that “considerable progress.”

“We’re not suggesting the number of 40 or 50 a month is good, but it’s a lot better,” Abrams says. “And we think that kind of progress has to be rewarded and encouraged.”

But human rights groups, which did not support the lifting of the embargo, along with some members of Congress told a different story: one of kidnappings, refugees and massacres by government forces.

This for example, came from Robert Goldman from Americas Watch Committee.

“Rios Montt is a dictator who came in with all these promises, and yet, what did he do?” Goldman says. “He abolished all press freedom. There’s less press freedom now in Guatemala than there has been for the last 30 years. No political parties are allowed. No union activity. Search and seizure without warrants are conducted. A three-man military tribunal can sentence anybody to anything, including death.”

It’s an interesting debate to watch in light of the trial still taking place. We’ll be posting updates on the trial in the coming days and weeks and following Jardin’s coverage from the courtroom.

Rios Montt Guilty of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
Jenny Marder / PBS NewsHour

(May 10, 2013) — A Guatemalan court found José Efraín Ríos Montt guilty on Friday of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. That was confirmed by Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, reporting from the courtroom in Guatemala City, where she’s been following the trial for her website and for the PBS NewsHour. It was the first time a former head of state has been found guilty of genocide in his or her own country, according to the Associated Press.

Ríos Montt ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983 during the most violent period of the country’s 36-year civil war. The 86-year-old former general was sentenced to 50 years in prison for genocide and additional 30 for crimes against humanity. He was responsible for massacres that killed thousands of Ixil Mayans during that time.

Judge Yasmin Barrios, who has presided over the trial, said Ríos Montt knew exactly what he was doing and did nothing to stop it, according to Jardin. The judge also said that the court was completely convinced that the intent to commit genocide had been proven, according to her tweets.

Minutes ago Jardin tweeted the news from the courtroom:

Xeni Jardin ✔ @xeni
Guilty of Genocide. Judge Yassmin Barrios delivers verdict in the case of José Efraín Ríos Montt. In otras palabras, “Sí hubo genocidio.”
3:45 PM — 10 May 2013

Jardin has been capturing the drama in the courtroom that included shouts from the defense attorney and pleas from the judge to keep order. Celebration and cries of “Justice” from onlookers overwhelmed the proceedings.

Xeni Jardin ✔ @xeni
Courtroom erupts into incredible cheering. “JUSTICIA JUSTICIA JUSTICIA JUSTICIA JUSTICIA”
4:03 PM — 10 May 2013

Jardin was co-producer on a NewsHour piece by Science Correspondent Miles O’Brien that aired this week on the key role that science and forensics played in the trial. That involved analyzing bodies unearthed from graves and DNA of skeletons buried en masse during the war and studying satellite data of the countryside during the bloody regime.

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