Inside Story America

Efrain Rios Montt – Justice in limbo

Will the victims of genocide find reparation as the trial of Guatemala’s former dictator stumbles to a sudden close?

There has been much anger and grief expressed after the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former US-backed dictator was suspended.

It has been a minor miracle in many ways to get to the point of the trial, it has been a very long struggle … the judges who have now been responsible for the trial have shown great courage but throughout that process there have been setback after setback: the continual abuse of technicalities and procedural issues and formalities by the defence and by those who did not want this case to ever see the light of day.

– Paul Seils, International Center for Transitional Justice

Just days before a criminal court was due to issue a verdict in the trial of Efrain Rios Montt, an appeals court halted all proceedings.

The 86-year-old former general is accused of presiding over the killing of more than 1,700 Mayans in the Ixil region after taking power in a US-backed military coup in 1982.

That period is known as the darkest in the country’s 36-year civil war, as entire villages were wiped out by state security forces. Homes were burned down with people still inside and 29,000 people were forcibly displaced and subject to the brutality of the armed forces.

Rios Montt’s lawyers say that he bears no responsibility and that there is no legal basis for the charges.

For the survivors, the trial was supposed to be a step forward in helping the country confront its past, as time runs out to try the ageing former dictator for the crimes of which he stands accused.

So, what is at stake in the prosecution of Efrain Rios Montt?

For more on this case Shihab Rattansi is joined by guests: Kathryn Johnson, the development and advocacy co-ordinator for the Guatemala Human Rights Commission USA; and Paul Seils, the vice president and general counsel at the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Safety in Texas

Also on this edition of Inside Story Americas, after this week’s deadly explosion at a fertiliser plant in Waco, Texas, we ask if sufficient regulations are in place to protect workers lives?

4,500 [people] are killed each year in industrial accidents, each year. And we only spend as a nation $550m a year on workplace safety; that’s half as much as we spend on protecting fish and wildlife in this country.

– Mike Elk, a labour journalist for In These Times magazine

Authorities in Texas say a total of 12 bodies have been recovered, and hundreds more people were injured, after an enormous explosion at the fertiliser plant.

The plant was storing anhydrous ammonia, used to boost nitrogen levels in soil, in huge tanks. When mixed with water and air, it produces a poisonous cloud resulting in an explosive mixture.

The explosion was preceded by a fire at the plant.

The blast not only destroyed the plant, but also shook the ground with the strength of a small earthquake and levelled surrounding homes and businesses in the town of West, 30km north of Waco.

As the search and rescue operation continues, serious questions are now being raised about safety standards.

It has since emerged that the plant did not have sprinklers, fire walls or other safety mechanisms installed – mechanisms required for all facilities that handle dangerous substances.

To discuss this and more, we speak to Mike Elk, a labour journalist for In These Times magazine.