Guatemalans protest against bill that would free war criminals

Guatemala City – Beatriz Gonzalez was standing a few feet away from the ashes of a ceremonial fire on Thursday. Thirty-nine years ago, the fire was in the Spanish Embassy, located at the same Guatemala City location.

“My father died here in the Spanish Embassy,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera.

Thursday marks the 39th anniversary of the January 31, 1980 massacre, when state forces attacked the Spanish Embassy and set it on fire. Some 29 civilians, most of them indigenous Maya members of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC), were killed along with eight Spanish diplomats, including the consul.

Gonzalez’s father, Juan Jose Yos, was among the victims. A member of CUC, Yos was a sugar cane worker from the Escuintla department in southern Guatemala. Gonzalez never got to meet him.

“My mother was pregnant with me when he died,” she said.

Born just three and a half months later, Gonzalez was given her uncle’s last name. She has been participating in the anniversary commemoration activities for years.

“For us it is important that people know that we are always present, to demand justice for our relatives,” she said.

More than 200 people, including survivors and the families of victims of the armed conflict in Guatemala, gathered on Thursday to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre, and to protest a bill under discussion in Congress that would set war criminals free and prevent future prosecution.

Guatemalans hold a ceremony to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the January 31, 1980 Spanish Embassy massacre in which dozens of people burned to death [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

During the 36-year conflict between the army and leftist guerrilla forces, an estimated 200,000 people were killed and another 40,000 were disappeared. More than 80 percent of those killed were indigenous Mayan civilians.

A UN-backed truth commission found that state forces committed more than 90 percent of civilian killings. The commission also determined that state forces carried out acts of genocide, and domestic courts have come to the same conclusion. 

In 2013, a tribunal convicted former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity for a series of massacres in the Maya Ixil region during his rule in the early 1980s.

The conviction was overturned, but Rios Montt died last year just months before the partial retrial concluded. His co-defendant and former head of military intelligence was acquitted. But for a second time, a Guatemalan tribunal ruled that the state committed genocide during Rios Montt’s rule.

There are dozens of concluded, in-process and pending cases against ex military personnel for their roles in conflict-era atrocities, including massacres, rape, and forced disappearance. Some 40 former members of the military and one ex-guerrilla are currently in prison, either serving out their sentences or in custody pending trial.

Broad amnesty

Every one of them could soon walk free. A bill under discussion in Congress would reform the National Reconciliation Law to include a broad amnesty for all perpetrators of crimes against humanity and other crimes, ordering the release within 24 hours of those in custody and preventing future prosecution of others.  

The bill was introduced in 2017, but did not proceed to the floor until earlier this month, when it passed the first reading. Retired military officials cheered from the congressional viewing area.

The bill’s proponents claim the bill would advance the cause of reconciliation. Estuardo Galdamez, one of the legislators who introduced the bill, disputes the history and conclusions of truth commissions and courts. Galdamez is a retired Army captain and now also the ruling party’s presidential candidate.

“We soldiers are not killers or murderers. As soldiers, we combated terrorists,” he told reporters on January 17, when the bill passed the first reading.

Miguel Itzep saw it coming. A Maya Ixil human rights activist and national coordinator of the Q’anil Tinamit National Victims Movement, Itzep is concerned there may be the conditions in Congress for the bill to pass the next reading as well as the third and final debate, and become law.

“It was foreseen that the alliance for corruption and impunity would prioritise the National Reconciliation Law reforms,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It is not just a step backward in history. For us it is also a step backward to repression,” Itzep said. “It is not possible that 22 years after the Peace Accords, we could revert to these kinds of laws.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu speaks to reporters after a ceremony at the site of the January 31, 1980 Spanish Embassy massacre in which her father and more than 30 others were killed [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

During Thursday’s ceremony, flower petals lined the dwindling fire into which offerings were made while the names of the victims were read aloud. One of the names was Vicente Menchu, the father of Rigoberta Menchu, a Maya Kiche human rights defender and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“We are here and we are saying no to impunity,” Menchu told reporters at the site of the embassy massacre.

“We have to act, and that is what we are doing, as more than 100 organisations,” she said, referring to the groups from around the country that endorsed a statement opposing the proposed amnesty law.

“Reconciliation is built on a foundation of truth and justice, not on lies and impunity,” the organisations wrote in the statement issued Thursday. 

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