The Nuremberg Trials were the first official instance when the world took cognizance of imputing responsibility and liability upon those in leadership positions for their involvement in crime. Since then, there have been few convictions of national leaders, while the greater tendency has been to lean towards peace-for-exile agreements, where leaders gain amnesty in exchange for restoring peace by leaving the country behind.
Breaking that trend were a couple of tribunals established for some of history’s worst war crimes – the ICTY, the ICTR, the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone and the ICC to name a few. But for the first time ever, a domestic court has been founded to make an indictment concerning the complicity and involvement of a national leader in crime. Usually, the prosecution of a leader by its own domestic courts isn’t an easy task: the fear of a national leader and his supporters’ reprisals, the fact that there is a tendency to put peace before justice and the mere inability to try a national leader can tend to be a hindrance. That is why, especially, Guatemala’s own domestic court’s conviction of its former dictator: Efrain Rios Montt for Genocide and Crimes against Humanity is a breath of fresh air in a worldwide culture of impunity. Along with his intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriquez Sanchez (who was not found to be guilty on all of the charges, but some), Montt had orchestrated the massacre of as many as 1711 people, the forced displacement of nearly 29,000 people, and even genocide of the Mayan Ixil by exposing them to conditions that were set to destroy their community.
Genocide is carried out with an intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national or an ethnic group, through a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. In the Akayesu case the Trial Chamber of the ICC ruled that acts of rape can form an integral part of the process of destruction of a group. “These rapes resulted in physical and psychological destruction of Tutsi women, their families and their communities. Sexual violence was an integral part of the process of destruction, specifically targeting Tutsi women and specifically contributing to their destruction and to the destruction of the Tutsi group as a whole.” Sexual violence as genocide has been applied in this case as well. The Guatemalan court has explained that the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group was definitely there, and therefore sentenced Montt to 80 years in prison. This is the first ever time that a head of state has been tried, convicted and sentenced for genocide in and by a domestic court.
Despite all of the positive decision making, it has been ruled by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court that the trial has been annulled, and therefore, the conviction stands outlawed. With this ruling, all proceedings relating to Rios Montt have been thrown back until April 19.