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On the twelfth day of the trial of former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, expert witnesses from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, FAFG) provided graphic details regarding exhumations FAFG performed over the last seven years in the Ixil region of Guatemala. Ríos Montt is accused of having carried out genocide in that region against its indigenous inhabitants during his eighteen-month rule from 1982 to 1983. The prosecution’s selection of witnesses from the FAFG and their detached, descriptive testimony provide concrete examples of The Model Protocol for a Legal Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (Minnesota Protocol) in action. The Minnesota Protocol, created by an international group of experts in forensic science, lawyers, and human rights experts, provides methods of investigation, purposes, procedures of inquiry, and processing of evidence.

While not a legally binding document, the Minnesota Protocol is often thought to constitute international custom. It is the product of a process beginning in the early 1980s by the international community to formulate a set of principles and medicolegal standards for the investigation and prevention of extra-legal, arbitrary, and summary executions. The solidification as customary law made considerable advances when the now-defunct UN Committee on Crime Prevention and Control adopted the Minnesota Protocol, which was then endorsed by the General Assembly in its resolution 44/162 of December 15, 1989. Section B sets out several purposes of an investigation including identifying the victim(s), recovering and preserving evidentiary material to aid in prosecution of those responsible, and bringing ‘the suspected perpetrator(s) before a competent court established by law.”

The FAFG is a non-governmental, independent, technical-scientific, non-profit organization that serves to strengthen the justice system and respect for human rights through such research, documentation, outreach, education and awareness of the historical facts of right to life violations and unsolved death cases. It conducts surveys and scientific research, and applies forensic and social sciences to its investigations both nationally and internationally. Like Guatemala, most countries implement a system to investigate the cause of death in cases with unusual or suspicious circumstances. However, in some countries these procedures have broken down or are abused, particularly where the police, military, or other government agents may have caused the deaths. Therefore, it is vital that the international community continues to address the need for developing uniform standards. Guatemala and the FAFG serve as an example to the international community of the importance of applying the evidentiary standards set out in the Minnesota Protocol for forensic evidence in documenting crimes against humanity, particularly the detailed forensic evidence of mass graves.

Several FAFG forensic anthropologists and archeologists provided expert testimony on Monday April 8, 2013, regarding the exhumation of remains of people killed in the 1980s. Forensic Anthropologist Rony Estuardo Piedrasanta Castellanos and Social Anthropologist Byron Estuardo García Méndez provided riveting testimony. Castellanos indicated that FAFG identified the remains of fifty people found beneath a soccer field—some clothed and others in wooden boxes. Forensic testing indicated that one-third of the remains belong to adults and the remaining two-thirds belong to juveniles. The room fell silent as he read the names of each victim that was personally identified. He described the wounds on the bodies of the majority of victims indicated trauma as consistent with execution-style gunshots to the head and thorax region. One victim had signs of trauma caused by a sharp instrument. These descriptions are consistent with Section C of the Minnesota Protocol, which calls for a very detailed examination of the crime scene and body or bodies. Castellanos’ testimony and the FAFG’s ability to verify the identity of the bodies lends to the credibility of its investigation and its compliance with the Minnesota Protocol’s standards.

Méndez’s testimony about the story of the exhumation of a mass grave containing the remains of thirty people—seven women, sixteen girls, four men, and three boys—killed between 1980 and 1987 exemplifies the importance of the Minnesota Protocol’s requirement of neutrality and impartiality. He narrated the gruesome discovery of a murdered family in language devoid of any emotion. He discussed the discovery of the bodies—a father killed outside his home and a pregnant mother and her two daughters killed inside the house found in a “defensive” position—indicating they were attacked by assailants with guns. Despite the shocking evidence, the Minnesota Protocol requires a neutral investigation in order to lend credibility to the ultimate prosecution.

The investigative guidelines set out in Section C of the Minnesota Protocol, which are very specific, provide room for variation between countries and do not require rigid standardization. However it requires that all investigators ensure that certain procedural safeguards are implemented and particularly calls for impartiality and sufficient documentation leading to prosecution. The investigations carried out by the FAFG, which provide the foundation of the prosecution’s forensic evidence in the Ríos Montt trial, is the materialization of the Minnesota Protocol’s goals for accountability.

Ali Beydoun observed this testimony in Guatemala City. The staffs of the UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic and the Human Rights Brief contributed additional research in Washington, D.C.

* Ali Beydoun, Esq., serves as the clinic’s director and supervisor for the UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic at the Washington College of Law. Ali’s international litigation work includes a class action suit against Henry Kissinger and Chilean government victims seeking money damages for the wrongful deaths of their family members, representing U.S. citizens incarcerated under illegal immigration detainers; investigations and submissions to the United Nations on behalf of Tamil victims of the 2009 genocide, and Chagossians seeking redress for forced exile and torture by U.S. and U.K. government officials. Ali has lectured on his human rights cases at the University of Madras in Chennai, India, Universidad Nacional de Itapúa in Encarnación, Paraguay Universidad de Centro America in San Salvador, El Salvador and several U.S. law schools.