Ríos Montt listens to the trial (Photo: Miles O'Brien)
The trial of a former military dictator on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is under way in Guatemala, and it's producing wrenching testimony from people who allegedly saw their loved ones murdered by government soldiers.
José Efraín Ríos Montt is the first former head of state to be tried for genocide by his own nation's justice system. He's accused of specifically targeting an ethnic group - the Mayan Ixil people - for systematic murder, and ordering 15 massacres between March 1982 and August 1983.
The massacres and other assaults allegedly happened during a war between the Guatemalan government and leftist rebels.
Ixil women in the courtroom (Photo: Miles O'Brien)
Prosecutors allege the military used the threat of the rebels as a cover to exterminate rural Ixil villagers. Ríos Montt's defense team says the massacres were "the excesses of field commanders facing a determined left-wing insurgency," the New York Times reports
The trial started about a month ago, and in recent days villagers have been called to testify about their experiences. More than 100 witnesses have taken the stand so far.
Some of their testimony details atrocities and murders they say took place right before their eyes.
Pedro Chavez Brito told the court he was six or seven years old when soldiers killed his mother.
He says he hid with his younger brother, older sister, and her baby in a chicken coop, but soldiers dragged them out, forced them back into their house and lit it on fire.
Chavez is the only one who escaped.
"I got under a tree trunk and I was like an animal," he told the court. "After eight days I went to live in the mountains. In the mountains we ate only roots and grass."
Spectators sit behind Ríos Montt at the trial, April 1, 2013 (Photo: Getty)
CNN told the story of Jacinto Lopez, who says his teenage daughter Magdalena was killed by soldiers who stabbed her repeatedly in the neck. The soldiers then allegedly shot and killed his sons, 13-year-old Domingo and 10-year-old Pedro.
"They killed my family and destroyed our crops," Lopez told the court. "They took even my cows."
A woman lights a candle on a carpet made of flowers and grass outside of the courtroom to commemorate victims of sexual violence, April 2, 2013 (Photo: AP)
Sexual violence was also a major focus of the trial. An entire day was dedicated to testimony from rape victims, with many Ixil speakers telling their stories through interpreters.
Another aspect of the case is the involvement of the United States. When Ríos Montt became president, the U.S. had already cut off aid to the Guatemalan government because of human rights violations.
But in the 1990s, it was revealed the CIA had continued providing money to Guatemalan military intelligence sources during the civil war. And recently declassified documents show the U.S. had knowledge of the atrocities being committed against the Ixil Mayans.
A photo of Ríos Montt and then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, being shown at a 2003 hearing - that's Ríos Montt's hand in the foreground (Photo: Getty)
A 1983 memo includes a note from a U.S. ambassador that reads: "I am firmly convinced that the violence described... is government of Guatemala ordered and directed violence."
Critics have blamed the anti-communist U.S. government of the time for standing by during these atrocities and allowing them to take place.
But Anita Isaacs, one of those critics and a professor of political science at Haverford University, also suggests the U.S. deserves credit for its role to put Ríos Montt on trial.
"This trial wouldn't be occurring were it not for the role played by the United States pushing for reform in Guatemala's judicial system," she said.
Not everyone inside Guatemala is in favour of the Ríos Montt trial.
Current President Otto Perez Molina, a former general who led troops in Ixil areas, has said there was no genocide, and protestors with military ties have stood outside the court with signs demanding respect for the military.
Relatives of soldiers rally in support of Ríos Montt outside the courtroom (Photo: AP)
According to experts, it will be difficult for prosecutors to prove genocide. First, they must prove the attacks targeted a specific ethnic group with the intention to destroy it, and then convince the court that Ríos Montt was responsible.
But observers also say the trial itself is a victory, as it allows witnesses to tell their stories in court and have them officially recorded.
Law professor Naomi Roht-Arriaza told CNN it "makes public what they may have kept inside," and "opens up the nation to conversation. It lets people see that the justice system works."
To get regular updates on the case, you can visit riosmontt-trial.org, created and maintained by the Open Society Justice Initiative.
The site is "a collaborative effort to provide reporting and analysis of the trial," with reporting, analysis and commentary from legal and academic experts and human rights advocates who are in the court.
The trial is also being streamed live by the Association for Justice and Reconciliation.
Via New York Times