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Inside the Landmark Genocide Conviction of Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt

May 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
What does the conviction of Efraín Ríos Montt mean for the former Guatemala dictator, that country's fragile judicial system and for the families of the victims? Hari Sreenivasan talks to producer Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, who was in the courtroom at the time of the verdict.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Xeni Jardin has been following the story in Guatemala and was the producer on Miles O’Brien’s earlier report.

So, Xeni Jardin, give us an idea, how significant was this trial for the people there?

XENI JARDIN, Producer, Boing Boing: This is huge.

This is the first time in modern history that a domestic court has convicted a former head of state on these kinds of charges, genocide, crimes against humanity. But for both sides in this case, for the people who support the military, who support Rios Montt, and for the nation’s majority indigenous population, this is huge.

This — you know, it’s fair to state that for many people this reopens old wounds. The country’s 36-year civil war is not that long ago. And literally everyone in this country is still touched by that legacy in one way or another, some people very directly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You were in the courtroom during the verdict. And for those of us not who are following you on Twitter and other social media, what was the scene like?

XENI JARDIN: It was completely surreal, Hari.

The courtroom holds about 400 people. There are seats for 400 people. And I think there were easily 500, possibly 600 people packed into that courtroom. When the verdict was read, you know, Judge Jasmine Barrios began by explaining why Rios Montt was considered by the court to be guilty of genocide, of crimes against humanity.

But then when she actually got to the point of saying that he was guilty, there were claps. There were cheers. And then people kind of calmed down to hear the rest of what the court had to say. And then after — after she slammed the gavel on the desk, total chaos broke out.

There was, you know, a swarm of cameramen who just encircled the defense table, and specifically Rios Montt, looking for that shot of the century of this man’s reaction, this man who — whose legacy is indelibly imprinted on this country.

And then back in the gallery, behind where I was sitting with members of the press, you know, hundreds and hundreds of people were chanting, “Justice, justice,” and, “Yes, it was genocide,” which was a rallying cry on Twitter and in the streets in weeks before this verdict arrived.

You could see as you looked around the courtroom, Hari, that people were weeping. There were mothers holding their children and kind of swaying to the rhythm. The Ixil grandmothers who had testified of being gang-raped by 20 soldiers at a time for weeks on end, many of these women, they weren’t cheering. They were weeping. It was just such a powerful, powerful moment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How significant is it that they were even able to reach a verdict?

XENI JARDIN: I think it’s extraordinary that the trial came to any conclusion at all.

You know, the U.S. Embassy here in Guatemala issued a statement today urging the society and the Guatemalan government to respect the court’s outcome. And I think that everybody — you know, part of why this matters is because of the question of whether Rios Montt is an individual is guilty.

But part of why this trial matters is that the judicial system here is so fragile. And it’s just incredible that any case of this substance could come to a completion in a country where a tiny fraction of murders, just murders of everyday citizens now are ever brought to trial, let alone convicted.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what happens to these victims now? Is there a compensation? Who pays?

XENI JARDIN: Victims’ representatives say that, look, these indigenous campesinos, they were robbed of their land. They were displaced from their land. They are subsistence farmers.

Many, many families in that region lost their breadwinners. Who should be responsible for them? Is that Rios Montt’s estate who should pay that out? What about the government of Guatemala?

I almost think that this is the more contentious issue than whether or not Rios Montt as an individual can be found guilty of these crimes. The idea of reparations to victims in this case is something that many people in Guatemala are — have a very hostile reaction to.

So, you know, I spoke with some of the Ixil observers and querrelantes, which is the word for basically criminal witness in the trial. And I remember one of them said, you know, even assuming that the General Rios Montt stays in jail, “He will be fed every night,” this woman said. “What about us? We still have to worry about whether we will die of hunger.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Xeni Jardin joining us from Guatemala, thanks so much.

XENI JARDIN: It’s my pleasure, Hari.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And an update from Guatemala.

After Hari’s interview, the court ordered reparations for victims, including official apologies by the state and a national day of remembrance. But the victims won’t get the land they requested or any monetary compensation from the government.

And late today, the Associated Press reported that Rios Montt had been taken to a military hospital after fainting.