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Guatemalan Ex-Dictator Rios Montt Found Mentally Unfit For Genocide Retrial


Former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt has been declared mentally unfit to stand trial for committing genocide. Rios Montt briefly ruled Guatemala in the 1980s, during one of the most deadly periods of that country's civil war. He and his former intelligence chief are accused of ordering the army to kill more than 1,700 indigenous people in northern Guatemala. Filmmaker Pamela Yates has been covering Rios Montt and Guatemala since the 1980s, and she joins us now. Welcome to the show.

PAMELA YATES: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: This is not the first time the case against Rios Montt has been thrown out, right? I mean, he was actually found guilty of genocide back in 2013, but then a high court threw that ruling out and ordered this new trial. What's happening here?

YATES: Well, he was found guilty, and 10 days later, the Constitutional Court - they annulled the verdict on technical grounds. The vote in the Constitutional Court was 3 to 2, and the two who dissented, dissented vociferously, questioning the legality of the other three's ruling. Since then, Rios Montt's lawyers have continued to obstruct the beginning of the new trial. And that has been their defense strategy all along - to never have this trial restart because what was exposed at the first two-month trial was so shocking and had been so hidden in Guatemalan history that they decided never to allow that to happen again.

MCEVERS: Well, tell us about that. What was exposed during that trial?

YATES: What was revealed was the extent of this systemic targeting of the Mayan Indians in the Maya Ixil region of the Guatemalan Highlands and how entire villages were wiped out, how women, children and men were killed and what racism had to play in the Guatemalan armed forces' attack on the civilian population. The genocide in Guatemala, which is the sole genocide of the Americas in the 20th-century, is not taught in Guatemala high schools. It's not taught in the colleges. And so many people don't believe the genocide happened. Now they can no longer believe that.

MCEVERS: You were there in Guatemala back in the early '80s. You actually met Rios Montt, and you interviewed him on tape. Can you just tell us about that time and what he said to you?

YATES: I had been petitioning to interview him for months and finally, in June 1982, I got the chance. And I kept asking him about all the things that I had been seeing in the Highlands, where the military was attacking the civilian population, and he kept denying it. And finally he got really angry, and he said, if I don't control the army, then what am I doing here? Meaning - what am I doing here as president of the country? And that was used in the genocide case to show command responsibility. Command responsibility is a really important element in the crime of genocide.

MCEVERS: Right, 'cause it's really difficult. People can always say, oh, I was just following orders, but then it's always hard to find that guy who was giving the orders. And this is somebody who's basically saying, I was in charge.

YATES: I gave the orders. I'm in charge here. I'm the president.

MCEVERS: And so knowing what you know about him - about Rios Montt - what has it been like for you to sit in that courtroom and watch this process unfold?

YATES: It was incredibly satisfying because, you know, the Guatemalans - the survivors of the genocide - have never given up on the quest for justice. And they, along with incredible human rights defenders and international allies, spent 13 years building this case. And this case was the first time in the Americas where someone was on trial for genocide against indigenous people.

MCEVERS: So it sounds like, to you, justice has prevailed, whether a high court allows this final trial to go through or not.

YATES: And not just to me - to many Guatemalans and especially to the Mayans in Guatemala. They have a saying - la sentencia esta vigente - the verdict is valid. He was judged to be a genocidaire, and in their minds, he is a genocidaire.

MCEVERS: Pamela Yates into the documentary filmmaker who's been working in Guatemala for decades. Her next film, "500 Years," explores how Guatemala is working to shape it's national narrative. Pamela Yates, thank you very much.

YATES: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.