A new kind of genocide trial

A judge in Guatemala has greenlighted a trial for former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who stands accused of genocide:

Prosecutors allege that after leading a March 1982 coup and seizing control of the government, Ríos Montt oversaw torture, rape, forced disappearances and forced relocations and killings of thousands of Ixil people by soldiers, paramilitaries and other government officials.

The trial could be historic, not only because he is the first former president to be tried for genocide by a Latin American court, but also because its still extremely unusual for genocide trials to take place in the normal court systems of the countries where the alleged crimes took place. Writing on Al Jazeera, University of Georgia Human Rights Scholar Amy Ross notes that Montt's prosecution marks "the first time a national court, anywhere, prosecutes its own former head of state for the crime of genocide."

Though around 80 countries, including the United States, have laws against genocide on the books, trials for the ultimate crime have generally taken place in international courts or specially set up tribunals under foreign supervision. Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was tried at the Hague, as presumably, would Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir if he were ever arrested.

National-level prosecutions of lower-ranking officials have often been problematic, such as Iraq's rushed trial and execution of  "Chemical Ali" Hassan al-Majeed, or the seemingly politically motivated charges against associates of former President Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast. Guatemala now has a chance to set a more positive precedent, though given that Montt is likely to remain under house arrest no matter the verdict, victims may be unsatisfied. 

The trial will shine a not-so-flattering light on U.S. cold war foreign policy. Montt received training at the U.S. Army's controversial School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia during the 1950s. During the 18 months he was in power, a period during which he stands accused of at least 1,771 deaths, the Reagan administration lifted an arms embargo on the country despite reports of atrocities. Montt was also praised and supported financially  by televangelist Pat Robertson, who saw him as a "Christian soldier" battling communism and urged his supporters to pray for the Guatemalan leader. Bill Clinton expressed regret for Washignton's role in the repression in 1999, but Harvard historian Kirsten Weld suggests in the International Herald Tribune that the Obama administration should do more to support Guatemala's efforts to bring Montt to justice. 

The administration has also controversially denied an extradition request from Bolivia's government for former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who may also face genocide charges.  

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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