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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 15:45 GMT
Guatemala Maya racism trial opens
By Nicola Haseler
BBC News, Guatemala

File photograph of indigenous activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu
Menchu says the five shouted racist abuse at her
Guatemala's first race discrimination trial has opened, brought by the indigenous activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu.

She has accused five political leaders and activists of having made racist comments to her.

About 60% of Guatemala's population is indigenous, with most living in poverty in rural areas.

The charges stem from an incident that happened in October 2003 in the capital, Guatemala City.

Ms Menchu had appeared at a hearing to decide whether former dictator Gen Jose Efrain Rios Montt could stand for president.

She opposed the candidacy of the general, who ruled the country during the bloodiest period of Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war, when 200,000 indigenous Maya were killed or disappeared.

After the verdict went in favour of Gen Rios Montt, his supporters allegedly taunted her with comments such as "Go and sell tomatoes at the market, Indian".

The accused are Gen Rios Montt's grandson Juan Carlos Rios, a former lawmaker from the Guatemalan Republican Front, two party activists and a member of the Guatemala City-based Central American Parliament.

'Laws are racist'

Thanks to a new law penalising discrimination in 2002, Ms Menchu is now fighting to convince the judges the remarks were racist.

"Discrimination is part of the structure of the state in Guatemala," she said. The political process is mono-cultural and mono-lingual, and indigenous people lose out.

"People use the term Indian as an insult. Women in traditional dress are turned away from public places.

Map of Guatemala
"I'm fighting to set a precedent for racism, but the laws are racist."

Ms Menchu won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign for Indian rights.

Discrimination against the Maya has been endemic in Guatemala since the days of the Spanish conquest.

Twenty-two indigenous peoples co-exist in the country's highlands, representing a majority of the population.

There are 13 indigenous members of Congress out of 160, but they are spread across the political parties and do not present a united voice for indigenous rights.

If convicted, the accused face prison sentences of between one and six years.

The verdict - whatever the outcome - will be a symbolic reference point in the history of indigenous rights in Central America.


SEE ALSO:
Guatemala general 'accepts loss'
11 Nov 03 |  Americas
General to run in Guatemala
31 Jul 03 |  Americas
Country profile: Guatemala
16 Nov 04 |  Country profiles


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