Guatemala Urged to Arrest Ex-Ruler

By Sabrina Valle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007

A group of U.S. lawmakers called on the Guatemalan government yesterday to prevent a former dictator from seeking immunity against prosecution on human rights violations.

In a letter, 31 congressmen urged the government to arrest Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt and other defendants accused of genocide and other crimes during Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

Ríos Montt, who served as president from 1982 to 1983, has said he plans to run for Guatemala's Congress in September elections. Human rights groups say that, if elected, Ríos Montt would be likely to enjoy immunity from prosecution.

More than 200,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians, were killed or abducted in Guatemala's 1960-96 civil war. According to a U.N. report, more than 90 percent of the killings were carried out by the government. Ríos Montt ruled the country during what was considered the bloodiest period of the conflict; at the time, he was supported by the Reagan administration.

Rights groups filed a criminal genocide complaint against Ríos Montt in Guatemalan courts in 2001, and a warrant for his arrest was issued in Spain last year in connection with an attack on the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in 1980.

But Ríos Montt, who has denied any wrongdoing, remains free, as do several others accused of rights violations during Guatemala's war. Investigations into the cases continue.

"In over six years since the petitions were filed, there has been little discernable progress in the cases," the U.S. congressmen said in their letter yesterday to Attorney General Juan Luis Florido. "We do not believe that the delay can be adequately explained by the replacement of Special Prosecutors and procedural appeals by the defendants."

Andrew Hudson of the Human Rights Defenders program, part of Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization based in New York and Washington, suggested that prosecution of the Ríos Montt case would have broad consequences.

"It is important to bring the perpetrators of serious human rights violations to justice in order to break the culture of impunity and create a safer environment for human rights defenders," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company