News Archive

Law Clinic Plays Leading Role in Guatemalan Human Rights Case

By Nancy Bronstein

A much-anticipated public hearing in Quayaquil, Ecuador last week, presented new, irrefutable evidence of Guatemala’s state-sanctioned policy of forced disappearances over the course of its 36-year armed conflict. Students of Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic played a critical role in the legal case that revealed the human rights abuses aired at the hearing.

During Guatemala’s civil war, an estimated 45,000 people were “disappeared,” most of them civilians, in what’s been called the most bloody and continuous wave of repression and violence in Latin America.

Seven judges of the prestigious Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, presided before a packed audience that sometimes erupted in gasps or sobs. During the eight-hour hearing, the plaintiffs’ evidence was meticulously laid out in what’s known as “The Diario Militar Case,” named for a passport-sized logbook made public in 1999.

This 54-page journal was smuggled out of Guatemala for safe keeping and delivered to an analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington D.C. Its pages are filled with small black and white identification photos, names, descriptions, and most eerily, coded entries for the executions of 183 people targeted by the military between 1983 and 1985—years that coincided with the war’s most violent decade.

The logbook offered the first tangible and authenticated evidence that a state policy of repression and terror had been securely in place in Guatemala for quite some time. Its discovery made real the possibility that, some day, justice might be brought to the victims’ families.

Of the tens of thousands who disappeared in Guatemala, this documented group became the focus of Assistant Clinical Professor Roxanna Altholz, associate director of the International Human Rights Law clinic. After the logbook was published, victims’ families approached the Fundacion Myrna Mack (FMM) for legal aid. The FMM is a distinguished and widely respected Guatemalan human rights organization named for a young anthropologist murdered in 1990. Foundation Director Helen Mack, Myrna’s sister, asked Altholz to be lead counsel on the case. That was seven years ago.

Since then, Altholz and more than two dozen clinic students, in partnership with the FMM, have advocated for, and represented, 28 of the victims via 129 of their family members.

A tidal wave of injustice

The years of work came to fruition when Altholz, four current clinic students—Carolina Solano LL.M. ’12, Holly Hutchings Dranginis ’13, Luz Gonzalez Fernandez ’13, and Sonia Fleury ’13—as well as former clinic student Carmen Atkins ’08, and Helen Mack, traveled to Quayaquil to present their case.

In anticipation of the hearing, dozens of the victims’ family members worked with the Berkeley and Guatemalan teams preparing written testimony to enter into the court record. Of those, only two family members were asked by the Court to testify in Ecuador.

“The two victim witnesses represented their own families, but also the many families who couldn’t come to the hearing. This was their first opportunity to air their claims publicly before an impartial tribunal. They’d been waiting almost 30 years for this moment,” said Altholz.

As a clinical professor, Altholz teaches students about the practice of law through litigation. “The students are instructed on a range of legal skills in the context of a case of enormous historical importance,” she said.

Working in twos to ensure there was always another set of eyes to verify and double check their work, the students were tasked with prepping experts and witnesses for testimony, drafting cross examination questions and declarations for victim witnesses, analyzing reparations options, reviewing case law and researching the tactics of Guatemala's security forces. But more than anything, they worked to gain the trust and confidence of the families.

"You could work your whole life before you’d have the privilege to be part of a project like this," says Luz Gonzalez Fernandez. "For what I’m after in my career—this is it!"

In addition to the family members, the Court heard testimony from the Guatemalan prosecutor in charge of the criminal investigation into the disappearances, and just one expert witness, Kate Doyle, director of the Guatemala Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. It was Doyle who published the notorious logbook. For years, Guatemalan authorities had claimed that no such documentation existed.

Holly Hutchings Dranginis worked closely with Doyle for months to prep and help craft her testimony, while Carmen Atkins questioned her at the hearing. The Court congratulated Doyle on her exceptionally clear and thorough testimony.

“There’s still a lot of silence and fear around the war,” said Sonia Fleury, who, along with Dranginis, analyzed the state’s criminal investigation files. “The state’s files were a sham. This case could start moving other cases and dialogues forward in Guatemala. This is the first time that the families were able to publicly address the state on a level playing field.”

The Court is not expected to issue its binding ruling before September. When it does, it will no doubt draw worldwide attention, particularly from other Latin American countries where similar events have taken place.

“This case will reinforce the state’s duty to provide access to police, military, and other official archives,” said Altholz. “Those official documents contain the evidence necessary to hold Guatemalan authorities, many of whom have positions in the government today, accountable for their crimes.”

Some reparations will also be mandated. The families have asked for an apology from the president, a truthful account in school textbooks of this sordid chapter in their country’s history, and a museum dedicated to the victims along with economic reparations. But of paramount importance to them is that the remains of their loved ones be returned and that those responsible for these crimes be held accountable and brought to justice.

In 2005, in another extraordinary discovery, investigators came upon an estimated 80 million pages of rotting documents secreted away by the Guatemalan National Police decades ago. It was one of the largest archives found in the history of Latin America. For future criminal cases, these documents will be invaluable. But the state is still hiding its vast military archives, all part of what Altholz has called “a tidal wave of injustice.” The families have asked the Court to order the state to turn over these documents.

“A statement by this Court that the state of Guatemala disappeared these people will give the families validation nationally and internationally, and that will have immeasurable value for people who have been denied the truth for so long,” said Carolina Solano. “The importance of this hearing is public recognition of the disappeared as victims.”