Guatemalan massacre survivors seek former president's trial

Friday's conviction of mili-tary officers for killing a bishop buoys activists' case against Efrain Rios Montt.

It was nearly 20 years ago when the Army visited Pasqual Hernandez's Mayan village in the highlands of Guatemala,but he still can't forget. The soldiers lined up the townspeople and shot them one by one. They raped young girls and mutilated the heads of the children.

Last week he and other Mayan massacre survivors came to the capital to file a criminal complaint for genocide against former military dictator and current president of Congress Efrain Rios Montt.

"I saw it with my own eyes when they killed my brothers and friends. That is why I amdemanding that those who ordered the Army to do it be punished," says Mr. Hernandez. "It was the government of Efrain Rios Montt that authorized that massacre."

Four and a half years after Guatemala's 36-year civil war ended in a peace accord, an association of massacre survivors is following the examples of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, seeking justice for what they say amounted to genocide.But unlike those nations, the association intends to try one of the most powerful elected officials in the nation in the country's own judicial system.Activists are hoping their case will be bolstered by last Friday's landmark conviction of high-ranking military officers for the 1998 murder of a Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi.

The case against Rios Montt and four members of his high command, built over the past four years, is based on forensic and testimonial evidence from 11 massacres of an estimated 150 people during his short rule in the early 1980s.

"We are not talking about a couple of atrocities that were committed by accident. We're talking about a structured plan designed by the high command to wipe out thousands upon thousands of indigenous people," says Paul Seils, a Scottish lawyer advising the association.

The official truth-commission report on the armed conflict confirms that there was genocide here and recommends that those responsible for the worst human rights violations be prosecuted.

Last year, the association filed a case for genocide against former military dictator Romeo Lucas Garcia and his high command, which ruled just before Mr. Rios Montt. These two governments are widely considered to have been the bloodiest in a war that claimed 200,000 lives.

Rios Montt's office said he is not giving interviews on the subject, but he did tell local press that he has nothing to hide.

He is in good company: A number of Guatemalans still deny that a genocide ever occurred here.

"The term genocide refers to an attempt to exterminate a group of people identified by their race or religion - that is not what happened here," says Armando de la Torre, director of graduate studies in social sciences at the Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala City.

Military analyst and former army officer Hector Lopez Bonilla agrees: "There was no policy to kill indigenous people behind the massacres. What there was was a total loss of control."

Proving whether there was genocide, however, may not be the biggest challenge facing the association. Rios Montt is president of both the nation's Congress and of the ruling party. Many say getting him to court in a nation where judges are often threatened will be an uphill battle.

But advocates remain dedicated to the cause, even if Rios Montt will likely be acquitted. "Just getting this case to court would show that no one is beyond the law's reach," says Alexander Sequen-Monchez, a Guatemala City political scientist.

"And it would open up a public discussion," he continues, "about something that happened here that many young people today either don't know about, don't care about, or are too scared to ask about."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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