A Guatemalan court on Friday found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity during the bloodiest phase of the country’s 36-year civil war.
He was sentenced to 50 years in prison on the genocide charge and 30 years for crimes against humanity. It was the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide in his or her own country.
Rios Montt, 86, took power after a coup in 1982, and is accused of implementing a scorched-earth policy in which troops massacred thousands of indigenous villagers. He entered the court on Friday to boos and cries of “Justicia!” or justice.
Prosecutors say Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to try to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during his 1982-1983 rule, the most violent period of a 1960-1996 civil war in which as many as 250,000 people died.
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I remember Guatemala well in the 1980’s, and how tortured we all were by the destruction of the country, and the horrible role that the United States and Israel and Western religions played in supporting that horrible murderous regime, even with active training of the troops that carried out the war crimes. The feelings I felt then are what we feel now about Bashar Assad’s regime. Ironically, then too there was a superpower standoff in Latin America that precipitated the support of violent forces on all sides, but mostly with the regimes. Now I look at this old man in court, and I think about the long view of history, the long view of the march of nonviolence, and I realize that the steady and patient increase in the rule of law is the most important victory of the forces of nonviolence in history, and the greatest vindication for victims, even long after they are dead.
I think of how sexy and heroic it was in the 1980’s to support revolutionaries against this terrible regime, and I think how many people died due to that endless cycle of violence. But now here we are in the early twenty first century, and some little known group of lawyers and their assistants tirelessly and patiently built the case for this man to end his life in a jail, where the rule of law declared his life a complete failure. That is precedent setting for the earth itself. It is sending a message loud and clear to every smart ass authoritarian leader deciding whether to take short cuts to greatness through murder and killing, or whether to work the hard way for their reputation and legacy. The message is this: Look at Guatemala, look at Cairo, and know how your life will end, know what your little children and grandchildren will think of you some day, know that they will run around the globe hiding and changing their names. And then decide whether you want to go on the path of killing.
The heroes of nonviolence here are surely all those Guatemalans who stood with the victims, all of those who let the world know what was done there, and finally the tireless investigators and lawyers who put this man in jail so that he could be a lesson for every other country’s leaders. Thus they did a service to humanity in the pursuit of policies and legal structures that will make us less and less violent as a human community. The world will always have leaders, but they are increasingly being put on notice to be less violent or suffer the consequences in the long run.© Marc Gopin