Guatemala Project Home > Genocide Case > Round 1 - February 2008
Summaries of Guatemala genocide testimony, February 4-8, 2008
Round 1 - February 4-8, 2008
The Guatemalan genocide case opened its first hearings in Madrid on February 4, 2008. Thirteen Mayan Achí men and women travelled from Guatemala to appear before Judge Pedraz as witnesses to the effects of the Guatemalan army’s scorched earth operations on their communities in the early1980s. Representing the survivors were Almudena Bernabeu, International Lawyer at the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), and Miguel Ollé Sesé, President of the Human Rights Association of Spain (La Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España—APDHE). Professor Naomi-Roht Arriaza of the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco was present as a legal advisor. National Security Archive Senior Analyst and Director of the Guatemala Project, Kate Doyle, attended the hearings as an observer. Her summaries of the five days of testimony given in Madrid from February 4-10 are posted here.
Among the witnesses was Jesus Tecú Osorio, survivor of the Río Negro massacre and winner of the Reebok Human Rights Award. Tecú was a child when the military began attacking the communities of Rabinal with increasing intensity during 1981 and into 1982. He was ten years old when he watched the Army and civil patrols (PAC) enter his village of Río Negro on March 13, 1982, and carry out the massacre that left 70 woman and 107 children dead, including his own mother and infant brother. Tecú explained to Judge Pedraz how important the Spanish process was in light of Guatemala’s failure to hold accountable the high-level officials responsible for the genocide. He mentioned the case of one civil patroller who was sentenced to death by a Guatemalan court in 1999 for his role in the Río Negro massacre, and pointed out that while “the government is willing to condemn an indigenous to the death penalty, no one dares do that to the intellectual authors of the genocide. For that reason, we came to Spain.”
Along with the survivors, journalist Allan Nairn provided expert testimony to the judge, citing interviews with military officers in the Quiché in 1982, in which they confirmed the Army’s adherence to the military chain of command during counterinsurgency sweeps aimed at annihilating the Maya. During his testimony, Nairn argued that civilian politicians and military officials in the United States also shared responsibility for the genocide, having aided the Guatemalan armed forces for decades.
Background on the Case
The case began in 1999, when Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum and other victims filed a criminal suit in the Spanish National Court against eight senior Guatemalan government officials: former heads of state Efraín Ríos Montt, Fernando Romeo Lucas García and Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, ex-Minister of Defense Ángel Anibal Guevara Rodríguez, former Minister of Interior Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz, ex-Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff Manuel Benedicto Lucas García, former Director of National Police Germán Chupina Barahona and head of the police unit Comando Seis, Pedro García Arredondo. Progress in the case was delayed by legal motions in Spain until 2005, when the Spanish Constitutional Court issued a groundbreaking decision affirming Spain’s jurisdiction over genocide, torture and other crimes against humanity, regardless of where they took place, under the principles of “universal jurisdiction.”
Judge Santiago Pedraz of the Audiencia Nacional traveled to Guatemala in June 2006 to begin investigation into the genocide case, but faced what he called the “obstructionist attitude of the defendants,” and was unable to gather testimony. Shortly after returning to Madrid, Judge Pedraz issued international arrest warrants for all of the officials on July 7, 2006. In a historic move, the Guatemalan Courts responded by accepting the international warrants and arresting two of the eight defendants. Guatemala took another major step forward by recognizing the jurisdiction of the Spanish National Court and ruling that the extradition request could proceed. On December 12, 2007, however, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court upheld a challenge from two of the accused officials, finding that Spain did not have jurisdiction to prosecute, and released Ángel Aníbal Guevara Rodríguez and Pedro García Arredondo from detention.
Despite this setback, Judge Pedraz warned that Guatemala was in violation of international law in their refusal to extradite the two defendants, and declared his intention to proceed with the hearings. The courageous survivors who provided testimony in Madrid demonstrated the resolve of human rights advocates to move this historic case forward. [Read more on background of genocide case.]
Spain has a strong national interest in the atrocities carried out during the Guatemalan civil war. In 1980, after peasant protestors occupied the Spanish Embassy, Guatemalan security forces stormed the Embassy grounds and set the building ablaze, leaving 39 people dead. Furthermore, Spanish priests and their catechists serving in Guatemala during the conflict were targeted by the Army and many were assassinated. The Spanish Constitutional Court also upholds the right to prosecute based on the principal of “universal jurisdiction,” noting that individuals accused of grave human rights crimes can be prosecuted in foreign courts if their home country is unwilling or unable to prosecute. The Guatemalan case follows the precedent set by Augusto Pinochet, whose arrest in London in 1998 helped strengthen the principal of universal jurisdiction, demonstrating that diplomatic immunity does not apply to former government officials accused of serious human rights violations.
The Guatemala Evidence Project
The genocide case in Spain is one of several human rights legal cases related to Guatemala that the National Security Archive is actively supporting. Prosecutors have sought the Archive's help in obtaining and analyzing U.S. and Guatemalan government records that can contribute to human rights litigation efforts. In response to this demand, in 2007 the Archive joined forces with human rights experts to launch a research initiative aimed at consolidating information on the Guatemalan army and security forces in an authoritative way for use in the genocide case and other, future human rights legal action. The project is collaboration between the Archive, the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco and the Myrna Mack Foundation in Guatemala. Professor Naomi-Roht Arriaza, international human rights specialist at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, serves as the project's director, and Susan Kemp of Impunity Watch in the Netherlands is a project advisor.
In October 2007 the project’s steering committee hired an expert military analyst with eight years of experience working for the International Criminal Tribunal established to prosecute those responsible for war crimes carried out during the conflict in the Balkans. The analyst spent three months in Washington working at the National Security Archive to compile an authoritative chronological summary of the documents, tailored specifically for use in the genocide case. The project is now in its final phase of turning the research into a written product for the judge in the genocide case, as well as for use in other existing or potential cases.
Summaries of Guatemala genocide testimony, February 4-8, 2008