Friday, October 29, 2010

Verdict in Guatemala Disappearance Case!

Just got late-breaking news: the judges just rendered a guilty verdict in the trial I was about to discuss in the following blog post! Will share more details from our team later, but this is a great day for fighting impunity around forced disappearances.

Benetech Statistical Expert Testifies in Guatemala Disappearance Case

The Benetech Human Rights Program uses cutting edge computing methods and statistical analysis to provide objective evidence of human rights violations. The scientifically defensible data in our findings serve as a powerful tool to combat impunity and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. A strong example of this work was shown on October 18th when Benetech statistical consultant Daniel Guzmán presented expert legal testimony in the trial of two former agents of the Guatemalan National Police, Abraham Lancerio Gómez and Héctor Roderico Ramírez. The officers have been accused of complicity in the disappearance of Guatemalan student and union leader Edgar Fernando García who vanished while in police custody in 1984. A conviction in this case would help establish, for the first time, the act of forced disappearance as a crime within the Guatemalan judicial system.

Guzmán’s testimony was based on his analysis of the Guatemalan National Police Archive which was discovered by chance in 2005 in a munitions storehouse in Guatemala City. This astonishing collection of crumbling papers, books, photographs and floppy disks was revealed to be the historic archive of the Guatemalan National Police which were disbanded after country's 1996 Peace Accords. The estimated 31.7 million documents in the archive produced from 1960 to 1996 contain critical information about police operations during Guatemala's 36 years of internal armed conflict during which an estimated 200,000 people were killed or disappeared.

Guzmán and his colleagues at the Benetech Human Rights Program (HRP) have been analyzing the archive since 2006 when they were invited by the Guatemalan government and partner NGOs to develop a plan to examine the records. HRP director Dr. Patrick Ball developed a plan to collect a multi-stage random sample of the documents and secure the sample data with Benetech's Martus information management tool for careful examination. This analysis has resulted in a clearer understanding of contents of the archive and generated quantitative results that can answer questions about which police units or commanders may have been responsible for disappearances.

“The content of the expert testimony is important, but the competence of the expert is equally important,” says Jorge Villagran, IT manager of the archive project. “In the case of Benetech, credibility and technical competence are guaranteed.”

Guzmán’s expert testimony helped the judges in the case remove doubt about the authenticity and reliability of the documents. He showed that the records are consistent in structure and overall content with many other documents in the archive and were not chosen deliberately or selectively. He described the patterns of data found in the documents and the probability that police officials knew about the 667 documents related to García.

Guzmán’s statistical estimates about which police units had access to which documents showed evidence of communications between the army and police. This is critical because historical data has show that the Guatemalan army was most involved in human rights violations against civilians. Prosecutors hypothesize that the police may have carried out crimes against civilians ordered by the army.

“If prosecutors can establish that the archive is a reliable source of proof for them, it is huge,” says Guzmán. “There is a lot of potential in the archives to find information related to human rights violations that can serve as a resource for these kinds of cases.”

You can read more about the case at http://www.hrdag.org/about/guatemala-trial.shtml.

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