Stage I: 1999-2005
Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a Qu’iche Indian woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work defending the rights of indigenous peoples, lost her entire family at the hands of the Guatemalan military and paramilitary groups acting with the consent of the government.
In December 1999, in the wake of the arrest in London of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Rigoberta Menchú and a group of Spanish and Guatemalan non-governmental organizations filed a suit in the Spanish National Court against eight senior Guatemalan government officials. The complaint charged the defendants with terrorism, genocide, and systematic torture stemming from a number of notorious incidents including Rigoberta Menchú’s personal story. Rigoberta Menchú’s mother and brother were tortured and killed by the army. Her father died when he was burned alive, along with 38 other people, by members of the army at the Spanish Embassy in 1980.
After the case was initiated in 1999, the Public Prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss the action claiming that the plaintiffs had not adequately exhausted their legal remedies in Guatemala. The plaintiffs argued that justice in Guatemala was effectively denied because victims and lawyers were threatened and courts refused to entertain or pursue suits. In a temporary setback for the case, an en banc criminal chamber of the Spanish National Court ruled on December 13, 2000 in favor of the Public Prosecutor.
The various plaintiffs appealed to the Spanish Supreme Court in March 2001, and on February 25, 2003 the Supreme Court, in an 8-7 decision, partially overturned the National Court’s decision. The Supreme Court found that the only litigation that could proceed were the ones which showed a close tie to Spain. The ruling thus allowed investigations for the torture and killing of Spanish citizens in Guatemala but threw out the claims of the indigenous Maya plaintiffs.
In a groundbreaking decision, on September 26, 2005 the Constitutional Court reversed the Supreme Court’s decision, saying that it was the legislators’ intention to make Spain a country that observes the principles of “universal jurisdiction” for certain egregious crimes. The decision stated that Spanish courts will have jurisdiction over crimes of international importance – crimes prosecutable in any jurisdiction as prescribed by international treaties including the Geneva Conventions – regardless of the nationality of the victims and perpetrators. Such crimes include torture, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Stage II: 2006 – Present
CJA officially joined the case in 2006. Our initial role was to investigate the whereabouts of one of the defendants who had fled Guatemala, former Minister of the Interior Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz. CJA successfully located Alvarez Ruiz in Mexico. Although a warrant was properly issued for his arrest by the Spanish authorities, Mexican officials allowed Alvarez Ruiz to escape.
Judge Santiago Pedraz from the Spanish National Court now took over the case. As the first stage in the investigation, Judge Pedraz traveled to Guatemala to take statements from the accused. However, the defendants disputed Pedraz’s jurisdiction and filed complaints alleging a violation of their constitutional rights. Unable to take formal statements, Pedraz nonetheless returned to Spain with sufficient evidence to file official charges.
In July 2006, Judge Pedraz issued arrest warrants for the eight defendants named in the case, including former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt, and issued an order to freeze the defendants’ assets. At this stage, CJA became lead counsel and began working closely with Judge Pedraz in the legal battles surrounding the arrest orders. CJA also assembled a legal team with attorneys from Guatemala, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States.
The arrest warrants were accepted by the Guatemala Constitutional Court and extradition proceedings were initiated. In March 2007, CJA filed an amended complaint on behalf of two new clients, Jesus Tecú Osorio and Juan Manuel Jeronimo – both survivors of 1982 massacres carried out by the Guatemalan army in the Baja Verapaz area.
Unexpectedly, in December 2007, the Guatemala Constitutional Court reversed itself and held that the arrest warrants and extradition requests were invalid. In response, Judge Pedraz issued an international call to invite witnesses to travel to Madrid to present evidence on the genocide. CJA had previously received permission from the court to bring 40 individual witnesses to testify in Spain in three separate groups due to safety concerns. After the judge’s call, many more witnesses, including Rigoberta Menchú, traveled to Madrid to give evidence.
CJA, as lead counsel, organized four delegations of witnesses. The first group testified in January 2008 and included 15 survivors and three experts. The presentation of the testimony was a historic moment for the Maya survivors as it represented the first time a national court had allowed them to present evidence of the campaign of torture, rape and killing perpetrated against their communities in the early 1980’s.
A second round of testimony, which included six survivors and four experts, took place in May 2008. A third round of testimony, including six survivors and one expert, took place in Madrid in October 2008.
CJA sponsored a fourth round of testimony in Madrid. Almost 10 years after the issuance of the final report of the U.N. Truth Commission for Guatemala (CEH), the President of the CEH, Christian Tomuschat testified. Katherine Doyle of the National Security Archive (NSA) testified the next day about evidence contained in thousands of declassified U.S. documents which relate to the civil war. The documents came from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. Doyle testified in detail about the activities of the Guatemalan Armed Forces and its operations to kill thousands of Maya civilians.
As the national courts of Guatemala prove their intent to prosecute grave crimes, the Spanish National Court will not likely proceed. CJA supports the efforts of Guatemalan courts to prosecute the historic crimes that occurred within their borders.