The fact that a former Guatemalan dictator is finally being tried for atrocities underscores the importance of justice and accountability.

With help from forensic teams, the remains of those killed during early 1980s are identified and, finally, buried. (photo credit: James Rodriguez)

Late last month, a Guatemalan court ruled that former dictator Efrain Rios Montt would stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The government of Guatemala is accused of committing gross human rights abuses “from the 1970s through the 1990s in a war that left more than 200,000 dead and 100,000 women raped.”

Rios Montt was in power for 17-months beginning in 1982. Under his leadership, the Guatemalan military targeted the civilian population of the Mayan highlands and is accused of killing more than 1,700 men, women and children. Disturbingly, Rios Montt received cover and support from the United States while he was committing the atrocities.

According to Paul Seils, Vice President of the International Center for Transitional Justice, in a piece originally published in the Huffington Post:

He continued a genocidal campaign against the indigenous Mayan population, implementing a scorched earth policy that was endorsed by Ronald Reagan—who famously said that Ríos Montt was “getting a bum rap on human rights.”

Now, forty years later, justice is finally in process. Seils powerfully describes his experience working in the country after the atrocities:

Edvard Munch’s The Scream

In the years after I worked in Guatemala, the image I carried of the plight of the genocide victims was that of the haunting face in Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream. The pain is obvious to the observer, but there is no sound. The victims of Ríos Montt were largely uneducated peasants: even screaming at the top of their lungs, their voices were never heard.

The fact that Rios Montt is finally being brought to trial underscores the importance of accountability and remembrance. Even when justice is delayed, it should never be denied. Seils offers an important reminder:

It is hard to overstate the damage U.S. policy has wrought on the ordinary people of Guatemala, but the primary responsibility lies with the Guatemalans who planned and carried out these horrors. Ríos Montt is but one of many. But this is not the time to focus on him. It is a time to admire the courage of impoverished peasants who screamed for justice until their voices were finally heard.

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