Eight years ago a little-known quich Mayan activist from Guatemala won the Nobel Peace Prize. The soft-spoken woman, all of 33 years old, had been traveling the world for almost ten years, speaking out anywhere people would gather to listen. Her message was always the same: the civil war in Guatemala must be stopped and the military’s massacre of the indigenous Maya must end. Almost overnight, Rigoberta Mench came to symbolize indigenous rights worldwide. Now, four years after peace was declared, Mench is using a Spanish court to charge eight Guatemalan military and political officials with genocide, terrorism and torture.
“I look around my country,” she says quietly, “and I see that there has been no restitution for the abuses that occurred.” Unable to get justice in Guatemala, Mench took a cue from activists who used international law to arrest former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. “In Guatemala, the accused are claiming that a foreign court cannot try their crimes,” says Mynor Melgar, a Guatemalan lawyer specializing in human rights cases. “But one of the crimes cited in Mench’s case occurred in the Spanish Embassy in 1980, when her father, several peasant leaders, and embassy workers were killed in a fire started by Guatemalan security forces.” According to international law, Spain has an established legal right to prosecute crimes committed on its land and involving its own citizens. In addition, says Melgar, “Spain, along with several other European countries, has a law that allows it to prosecute crimes against humanity—crimes committed on such a grand scale that they are unconscionable—regardless of location.”
Angelina Godoy Snodgrass, a specialist on Guatemala for Amnesty International, calls Mench’s case “the lawsuit with the potential to change the world.” Explains Melgar, “Once this precedent becomes globally accepted, it means dictators and abusive leaders can no longer claim immunity because they were acting as a head of state, nor can they deny the right of an international tribunal to try them.”
Pinochet’s case was the first to show the paradigm shift in the international community’s willingness to try past abusers. But if Mench is successful, her case could be the first to affect both the national and international spheres, making it impossible for the eight men she has accused to avoid charges simply by staying within Guatemala. “Getting these men out of the country is a problem,” Melgar says. “They are powerful and people are scared of them. But the public must not allow them to hide.” This is easier said than done: of those named in Mench’s suit, three are former presidents, two are ex-generals, two are police chiefs, and one is a former Minister of the Interior. In short, they are protected by their links to the country’s ruling class. One of the ex-presidents, Efrain Rios Montt, is the leader of the Guatemalan Senate and a cofounder of the country’s leading political party. Montt, who has been loudly proclaiming his innocence, canceled a trip abroad when it became clear that once outside of Guatemala, he could be extradited to Spain.