The surprise of a convicted dictator

May 14, 2013

Paco de Onís at Skylight Pictures writes:

This indelible image captures the moment at the Guatemalan trial of former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, when he and his mustachioed legal team are listening to Judge Jasmín Barrios as she pronounces him guilty of commiting genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil people, and sentences him to 80 years in prison.  They couldn’t believe that the trial had arrived at this historic juncture, ending the long years of impunity to which Ríos Montt had become so accustomed.  It was the first time that a former head of state had been tried and convicted of genocide in a domestic justice system.  It is a landmark in the annals of the global struggle for human rights, and serves as an example to the world.

After the prosecution rested its case by projecting our 1982 interview with Ríos Montt, one of the most telling revelations of the trial as it went forward was that the Ríos Montt defense team clearly felt they had no need to make a case for their client. It was reminiscent of the Jim Crow trials in the American South, where the white power structure used the courts as a conduit for the miscarriage of justice. When it came time for the Ríos Montt defense team to present their arguments, they resorted to dubious rulings to annul the trial issued by other branches of the justice system; long rants aggressively shouting at and insulting the judge; a theatrical walkout protesting what they claimed was an illegitimate case; and so forth.  They felt they would prevail as they always had in the past, hence their looks of surprise and consternation. No matter what may come in the inevitable appeals process, the verdict has been handed down and

We filmed the entire trial (of course, how could we not?) from its beginning on March 19, 2013 to its conclusion on May 10, 2013.  We encourage you to watch a web series we’ve been posting titled Dictator in the Dock, of dramatic filmed vignettes from the trial.  We will eventually release a film of this trial as part of a trilogy that began with When the Mountains Tremble in 1982, and continued withGranito: How to Nail a Dictator in 2011 – and now with the Ríos Montt conviction we have concluded a 31-year story arc!  There could hardly be a better example of Martin Luther King’s famous words, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” With our broadcast partner P.O.V. we have made both films available to be streamed online from now through May 24 – to view the films in English or Spanish click here.

Since the verdict, activity has spiked at Granito: Every Memory Matters, the project we launched with our Guatemalan partners to restore the collective memory of the Guatemalan genocide.  It seems that the triumph of justice over impunity is emboldening more victims and their families to come forward to share their stories.

For an excellent account of the dramatic last day when the verdict came down, go to the Open Society Justice Initiative blog of the trial.

Photo credit: Moises Castillo/Associated Press