A historic trial against former U.S.-backed Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity came to an abrupt end Thursday when an appeals court suspended the trial before a criminal court was scheduled to reach a verdict. Ríos Montt on was charged in connection with the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Ixil region after he seized power in 1982. His 17-month rule is seen as one of the bloodiest chapters in Guatemala’s decades-long campaign against Maya indigenous people, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Thursday’s decision is seen as a major blow to indigenous victims. Investigative journalist Allan Nairn reported last night Guatemalan army associates had threatened the lives of case judges and prosecutors and that the case had been annulled after intervention by Guatemala’s president, General Otto Pérez Molina. Ríos Montt was the first head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide. Nairn flew to Guatemala last week after he was called to testify in Ríos Montt’s trial. He was listed by the court as a “qualified witness” and was tentatively scheduled to testify on Monday. But at the last minute, Nairn was kept off the stand “in order,” he was told, “to avoid a confrontation” with the president, General Pérez Molina, and for fear that if he took the stand, military elements might respond with violence. In the 1980s, Nairn extensively documented broad army responsibility for the massacres and was prepared to present evidence that personally implicated Pérez Molina, who was field commander during the very Mayan Ixil region massacres for which the ex-dictator, Ríos Montt, had been charged with genocide. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: An historic trial against former U.S.-backed Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity came to an abrupt end Thursday when an appeals court suspended the trial before a criminal court was scheduled to reach a verdict. Investigative journalist Allan Nairn reported last night Guatemalan army associates had threatened the lives of case judges and prosecutors and that the case had been annulled after intervention by Guatemala’s president, General Otto Pérez Molina.
Ríos Montt was the first head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide.
He was charged in connection with the slaughter of more than 1,700 people in Guatemala’s Ixil region after he seized power in 1982. His 17-month rule is seen as one of the bloodiest chapters in Guatemala’s decades-long campaign against Maya indigenous people, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
On Thursday, survivors of the genocide attempted to approach Ríos Montt inside the courtroom, screaming “Murderer!”
AMY GOODMAN: The trial took a surprising turn last week when Guatemala’s current president, General Otto Pérez Molina, was directly accused of ordering executions. A former military mechanic named Hugo Reyes told the court that President Pérez, then serving as an army major and using the name Tito Arias, ordered soldiers to burn and pillage a Mayan Ixil area in the 1980s.
We’re going right now to investigative journalist Allan Nairn. He flew to Guatemala City last week after we—he was called to testify in Ríos Montt’s trial. He was listed by the court as a “qualified
witness” and was tentatively scheduled to testify Monday. But at the last minute he was kept off the stand “in order,” he was told, “to avoid a confrontation” with the president, General Pérez Molina, and for fear that if he took the stand, military elements might respond with violence.
In the ’80s, Allan Nairn had extensively documented broad army responsibility for the massacres and was prepared to present evidence that personally implicated Pérez Molina, who was field commander during the very Maya Ixil region massacres for which the ex-dictator, General Ríos Montt, has been charged with genocide.
Allan Nairn, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of the latest developments, the annulling of the trial of Ríos Montt?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, this trial was a breakthrough, not just for Guatemala, but for the world. It was the first time that any nation had been able to use its domestic criminal courts to try a former head of state for genocide. Dozens upon dozens of Mayan survivors of the massacres risked their lives to come and testify. A massive evidentiary record was put together, in my view, to proving a case of genocide against General Ríos Montt and his co-defendant, his former intelligence chief. A verdict was just hours away. A verdict could have come today in the trial, but yesterday it was all annulled after intervention by General Pérez Molina, the current president, and the Guatemalan military and oligarchy killed it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Allan, can you talk about what you learned in terms of the threats to the judges and—the judge and the prosecutor and what’s been their reaction, even though they’ve been sitting here now for several weeks in this trial?
ALLAN NAIRN: In one case, one of—one of the lawyers involved in pushing the case forward was approached by a man who offered him a million dollars if he would kill the case against Ríos Montt, a million U.S. dollars. He also said he would help him launder the money, set up offshore bank accounts. The lawyer rejected that. The man then took out a pistol, put the pistol on the table and said, “I know where your children are.” Another was approached on the street with a—with a direct death threat. Despite those threats, though, the case went forward. And now, after [inaudible] to kill the case, the attorney general of Guatemala, the trial judge presiding in the case are both vowing to try to go forward with it. They’re vowing to continue with the court hearing just a couple hours from now, even though they’ve been told they can’t. So a direct political confrontation has been set.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to investigative journalist Allan Nairn. He’s in Guatemala City. We’re reaching him by Democracy Now! video stream. Listen carefully. It’s a little difficult to make out what he is saying. But, Allan, we wanted to ask about why your testimony was canceled before the overall annulment of the trial yesterday. Why was your testimony considered so dangerous?
ALLAN NAIRN: I was given to understand that if I were called to the stand, two things would happen. First, President Pérez Molina would intervene to shut down the trial. And secondly, there could be violence, particularly from retired military. The reason was that, as you mentioned in the introduction, one witness had already implicated Pérez Molina in the massacres. He was a field commander at that time. After that testimony, Pérez Molina called in the attorney general, and the word went out that if he was mentioned again in the trial, if his name came up once, he would immediately shut it down. So—and they knew that I could implicate Pérez Molina further, because I had met him in the highlands during the massacres when he was operating under a code name. And I interviewed soldiers under his command who described how, under orders, they executed and tortured civilians.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Allan, in terms of the—of Pérez Molina himself, you have a situation here, obviously, after the Central America accords, when some sort of relative peace came to the region. How did Pérez Molina rise to power, being one of the underlings of Ríos Montt and the military that visited such carnage and such destruction on the people of Guatemala?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the reason the military was doing those massacres in the first place was to preserve a political and economic system under which there was 80 percent attrition in the area around Nebaj, which is where Pérez Molina was stationed and where, at the same time, there were world-class rich people running the plantations, the banks, the industries. Those massacres were basically successful in crushing the population and crushing any resistance and in maintaining that system. And within that system, Pérez Molina was able to rise. He became a colonel. He became the head of the G-2 military intelligence service during a time [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: We’re having a little trouble hearing, Allan.
ALLAN NAIRN: —placed on the CIA payroll. At one point, an office under his control was implicated in the—at one point, an office under Pérez Molina’s control was implicated in the assassination of a judge. He rose to general, and he was able to become president. That’s the—that’s the Guatemalan system. Yet, remarkably, even given that system, this movement from below of massacre survivors who refused to give up, who insisted on trying to bring generals to justice, was able to generate this trial, aided by people of integrity who had found their way into the Guatemalan judiciary and prosecution system, and a trial was begun. They heard massive amounts of evidence. I believe it was on the verge of giving a verdict, but then, at the last minute, Pérez Molina and the powers that be intervened.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Allan, we just have less than a minute, the attorney general is a woman. The judge is a woman. They are saying they’re going to move forward with this case, although it has been anulled, with a trial today? And what about protests outside?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, protests are planned outside the court. The judge, Yassmin Barrios, and the attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, both say they’re going to defy this order to kill the case, which is extraordinary. You know, this indicates, I think, that Guatemala has reached a higher level of civilization than the United States has. Even though this case was killed in the end, it’s inconceivable that in the United States a U.S. attorney, say, could indict a former U.S. president, could indict a George W. Bush for what he did in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, or could indict an Obama, and that this could proceed to trial and that massive amounts of evidence could be heard. That’s not yet conceivable in the American legal system, but it happened here in Guatemala, and it almost succeeded. It came very close. And now there’s going to be a popular reaction to try to continue that fight for law enforcement and justice.
AMY GOODMAN: And is it possible the trial will continue?
ALLAN NAIRN: Excuse me?
AMY GOODMAN: Is it possible the trial will continue?
ALLAN NAIRN: Well, I guess it’s possible, if Judge—Judge Barrios and the prosecutors are physically allowed into the courtroom, that they could try to have the trial. But the powers that be above them have now banned it, have now prohibited it. Ríos Montt and his lawyers may not show up. I don’t know what will happen. This is a real political crisis for Guatemala.
AMY GOODMAN: Investigative journalist Allan Nairn, speaking to us from Guatemala City. When we come back, we sat down with Allan before he left to go through the history of this trial and also play the videotape of his interview with the current president back more than 20 years ago when he was a major under Ríos Montt, on trial for genocide. Stay with us.