Guatemala City and Madrid
As dusk approached and a light rain fell over Guatemala’s Supreme Court plaza, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú sought to buoy the spirits of the human rights activists, local clergy and Mayan women gathered there. “The Supreme Court hasn’t given the green light on judging Ríos Montt yet,” she said of the longstanding quest to bring the former dictator to trial. “But don’t lose hope; we’ll fight the rest of our lives to see there’s full justice for the genocide in Guatemala.”
These days, the justice Menchú hopes for is meted out, in large part, by the high courts of Spain. First they went after Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s former despot. Then they trailed Adolfo Scilingo, the Argentine naval captain who had scores of political dissidents thrown from planes. Now Spain’s National Court has a new target: former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt.
The pursuit of Ríos Montt, along with former president Oscar Mejia and other high officials, for the torture and assassination of roughly 200,000 Mayans during Guatemala’s thirty-six-year civil war, makes Spain the world’s foremost practitioner of universal jurisdiction–a principle approving prosecution beyond territorial boundaries in cases of especially egregious crimes. Other countries have invoked the principle, but since judge Baltasar Garzón ruled Pinochet eligible in 1998 to be tried in Spain for crimes against humanity, the country has taken the lead in prosecuting international human rights violations. “Spain was a pioneer in taking on two extremely important cases,” says Alicia Gil, professor of international law in Madrid. “And once the process began, public opinion mobilized spectacularly behind it.”
The Guatemala case dates to 1999, when victims including Menchú–whose mother and brother were tortured, and whose father was killed in a 1980 military attack on the Spanish embassy–filed claims in Spain against Ríos Montt and others for terrorism, genocide and torture. At the time, Spain confined its jurisdiction to cases involving Spanish nationals, allowing legal action on behalf of the Spaniards killed in the embassy raid but preventing it for the Mayans, who were the military’s primary targets. In 2005, however, Spain broke new ground when its Constitutional Court ruled that claims could be prosecuted regardless of a victim’s or perpetrator’s nationality.
By June, Judge Santiago Pedraz was flying to Guatemala to take testimony from the accused. No sooner had he landed, though, than defense lawyers filed appeals that forced Guatemala’s Constitutional Court to suspend hearings indefinitely–and set the solemn tone for the June 27 vigil where Menchú spoke. Upon his return to Spain, Pedraz issued an international arrest warrant for Ríos Montt and the others and froze their assets. Because the two countries have no extradition treaty, Guatemala’s former president will not likely appear in a Spanish courtroom anytime soon. Nevertheless, the international search and capture order effectively prevents the accused from leaving Guatemala. “We’re closing the cage,” says Almudena Bernabeu, international attorney for San Francisco’s Center for Justice and Accountability, which represents the victims.