A Tale of Two Trials: Duvalier vs. Ríos Montt

April 29, 2013

Over the last decade the fight for accountability in Latin America for crimes committed by past dictatorships has seen a tremendous number of successes. In Peru, Alberto Fujimori is in jail. In Argentina dozens of defendants have been convicted in just the last year. But two ongoing cases continue to drag on, Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala and Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti. Both Ríos Montt and Duvalier enjoyed support of all kinds from the U.S. government, but the U.S.’s response to the cases illustrates the ongoing hypocrisy of the U.S. in the region.

In Guatemala, as numerous media outlets have described it, Ríos Montt is “the first former head of state in the Americas to stand trial for genocide in a national court.” While the case was recently suspended, after a week of legal maneuvers, it appears that it may be set to resume this week.  After the trial was suspended on April 18, investigative journalist Allan Nairn reported that “Guatemalan army associates had threatened the lives of case judges and prosecutors and that the case had been annulled after intervention by Guatemala’s president, General Otto Pérez Molina.” Nairn, who investigated atrocities in Guatemala in the ‘80s – including Pérez Molina’s involvement in them — was supposed to testify at the trial.

But less than a week later, the U.S. sent Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen J. Rapp to Guatemala to “meet with U.S. Government and Embassy officials, local victims groups, and other international officials.” Last Friday, as the trial continued to be suspended, State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson  Patrick Ventrell stated:

So we urge the Government of Guatemala to ensure that this legal case is conducted in accordance with Guatemala’s domestic and international legal obligations, and we expect the process and outcome will advance the rule of law.

The statement from the State Department came the same day that Rapp concluded his trip to Guatemala. Over the weekend, president Pérez Molina also seemed to partially walk back his previous statements criticizing the trial, calling the trial “historic” and pledging to not personally intervene.

In Haiti, on the other hand, the U.S. has been entirely absent.

The case against Duvalier is currently making its way, slowly, through an appeals court after an investigative judge had ruled he could not be tried for crimes against humanity. As is the case with Guatemala, the former dictator on trial appears to enjoy the support of the central government. As Amnesty International wrote last week:

The Public Prosecutor, instead of fulfilling her role of defending the public interest, has aligned with the defence and does not miss any opportunity to dismiss the complainants’ arguments.

The current administration, several members of which reportedly held positions of power in Jean-Claude Duvalier’s government, has shown no interest in bringing Duvalier to justice. On the contrary, it has granted him a diplomatic passport.

Last week was supposed to be the ninth hearing in the case, yet it was cancelled “as one of the judges needed to attend a funeral.” Amnesty points out that “Only five of the 20-plus complainants have been heard” and that Duvalier “has been evading the courts for some time,” having not appeared since February.

Yet, in contrast to Guatemala, the U.S. is silent. In March, Fran Quigley argued that the U.S. held the keys to the Duvalier trial, and noticed that Rapp, and other U.S. human rights officials (some with specific backgrounds in Haiti) were “sitting this one out.”

Instead, as Quigley wrote from the courtroom in late February, “the U.S. is represented today by just one embassy official, who does not participate in the hearing and does not want to speak for the record.” Rather than calling on the Haitian government to “ensure that this legal case is conducted in accordance with Haiti’s domestic and international legal obligations,” as they did for the Ríos Montt trial, the U.S. government has repeatedly stated that with regards to the Duvalier case “a decision about what is to be done is left to the government and people of Haiti.”

Update 5/01: A previous version of this post referred to an article from March by Bill Quigley, it was actually written by Fran Quigley.

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