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Guatemalans protest against bill that would free war criminals

Guatemala City – Beatriz Gonzalez was standing a few feet away from the ashes of a ceremonial fire on Thursday. Thirty-nine years ago, the fire was in the Spanish Embassy, located at the same Guatemala City location. “My father died here in the Spanish Embassy,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera. Thursday marks the 39th anniversary of the…

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Guatemalans protest against bill that would free war criminals

Guatemala City – Beatriz Gonzalez was standing a few feet away from the ashes of a ceremonial fire on Thursday. Thirty-nine years ago, the fire was in the Spanish Embassy, located at the same Guatemala City location.

“My father died here in the Spanish Embassy,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera.

Thursday marks the 39th anniversary of the January 31, 1980 massacre, when state forces attacked the Spanish Embassy and set it on fire. Some 29 civilians, most of them indigenous Maya members of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC), were killed along with eight Spanish diplomats, including the consul.

Gonzalez’s father, Juan Jose Yos, was among the victims. A member of CUC, Yos was a sugar cane worker from the Escuintla department in southern Guatemala. Gonzalez never got to meet him.

“My mother was pregnant with me when he died,” she said.

Born just three and a half months later, Gonzalez was given her uncle’s last name. She has been participating in the anniversary commemoration activities for years.

“For us it is important that people know that we are always present, to demand justice for our relatives,” she said.

More than 200 people, including survivors and the families of victims of the armed conflict in Guatemala, gathered on Thursday to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre, and to protest a bill under discussion in Congress that would set war criminals free and prevent future prosecution.

Guatemalans hold a ceremony to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the January 31, 1980 Spanish Embassy massacre in which dozens of people burned to death [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

During the 36-year conflict between the army and leftist guerrilla forces, an estimated 200,000 people were killed and another 40,000 were disappeared. More than 80 percent of those killed were indigenous Mayan civilians.

A UN-backed truth commission found that state forces committed more than 90 percent of civilian killings. The commission also determined that state forces carried out acts of genocide, and domestic courts have come to the same conclusion. 

In 2013, a tribunal convicted former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity for a series of massacres in the Maya Ixil region during his rule in the early 1980s.

The conviction was overturned, but Rios Montt died last year just months before the partial retrial concluded. His co-defendant and former head of military intelligence was acquitted. But for a second time, a Guatemalan tribunal ruled that the state committed genocide during Rios Montt’s rule.

There are dozens of concluded, in-process and pending cases against ex military personnel for their roles in conflict-era atrocities, including massacres, rape, and forced disappearance. Some 40 former members of the military and one ex-guerrilla are currently in prison, either serving out their sentences or in custody pending trial.

Broad amnesty

Every one of them could soon walk free. A bill under discussion in Congress would reform the National Reconciliation Law to include a broad amnesty for all perpetrators of crimes against humanity and other crimes, ordering the release within 24 hours of those in custody and preventing future prosecution of others.  

The bill was introduced in 2017, but did not proceed to the floor until earlier this month, when it passed the first reading. Retired military officials cheered from the congressional viewing area.

The bill’s proponents claim the bill would advance the cause of reconciliation. Estuardo Galdamez, one of the legislators who introduced the bill, disputes the history and conclusions of truth commissions and courts. Galdamez is a retired Army captain and now also the ruling party’s presidential candidate.

“We soldiers are not killers or murderers. As soldiers, we combated terrorists,” he told reporters on January 17, when the bill passed the first reading.

Miguel Itzep saw it coming. A Maya Ixil human rights activist and national coordinator of the Q’anil Tinamit National Victims Movement, Itzep is concerned there may be the conditions in Congress for the bill to pass the next reading as well as the third and final debate, and become law.

“It was foreseen that the alliance for corruption and impunity would prioritise the National Reconciliation Law reforms,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It is not just a step backward in history. For us it is also a step backward to repression,” Itzep said. “It is not possible that 22 years after the Peace Accords, we could revert to these kinds of laws.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu speaks to reporters after a ceremony at the site of the January 31, 1980 Spanish Embassy massacre in which her father and more than 30 others were killed [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

During Thursday’s ceremony, flower petals lined the dwindling fire into which offerings were made while the names of the victims were read aloud. One of the names was Vicente Menchu, the father of Rigoberta Menchu, a Maya Kiche human rights defender and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“We are here and we are saying no to impunity,” Menchu told reporters at the site of the embassy massacre.

“We have to act, and that is what we are doing, as more than 100 organisations,” she said, referring to the groups from around the country that endorsed a statement opposing the proposed amnesty law.

“Reconciliation is built on a foundation of truth and justice, not on lies and impunity,” the organisations wrote in the statement issued Thursday. 

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Sign language: Connecting people and cultures

The Deaf Friends team – KUNA photosSign language is a full-fledged means of communication for deaf people, depending on facial and body gestures that enable them to interact. The UN General Assembly set Sept 23 as the International Day for Sign Languages to highlight their importance, and how it was a major right for deaf…

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Sign language: Connecting people and cultures

The Deaf Friends team – KUNA photosSign language is a full-fledged means of communication for deaf people, depending on facial and body gestures that enable them to interact. The UN General Assembly set Sept 23 as the International Day for Sign Languages to highlight their importance, and how it was a major right for deaf people to have their own languages. The international day coincides with the establishment of the World Federation of the Deaf, founded in 1951.
“Sign language is multicultural and derived from the culture of every country,” said Hamad Al-Marri, President of Kuwait Sport Club for the Deaf. Marri, also member of the higher council for the disabled, told KUNA deaf people will be using their hands and other body gestures to express themselves. Every country has a unique sign language depending on its culture, he explained. “There is an international sign language, an Arab sign language and a unique local sign language.”
Arabic days of the week in sign languageMarri said many deaf people have occupied senior positions because they excelled in the use of sign language. He added he proposed to the Civil Service Commission for the appointment of people with sign language expertise in government departments to help the deaf. Marri said HH the Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah instructed Kuwait National Guards personnel, when he was deputy chief of KNG, to learn sign language to communicate with the deaf.
Arabic alphabets in sign languageDr Mohammad Al-Ramzi, a sign language instructor, said sign language “is rich, expressive and complicated just like the spoken language, and it has a grammar framework similar to all human languages”. Speaking to KUNA, Ramzi said Arab countries unified their sign languages in 1999 and a dictionary was published with more than 3,000 signs. Kuwait was the first country in the world to interpret three TV news bulletins. The bulletins were raised to eight per day in 2020, he added.
Ismail Karam, Technical Director at Kuwait Sport Club for the Deaf, said he learned sign language at Al-Amal (Hope) School for people with special needs, which he joined in 1960. After spending 12 years at the school, Karam graduated with the ability to write and sign. He then worked at the finance ministry’s printing press where he spent 30 years, during which he joined former classmates to establish the Kuwait Society for Deaf and Dumb in 1975. The society later changed its name to Kuwait Sport Club for the Deaf.
Al-Zahraa Al-Tamimi, member of the Deaf Friends team, said team members are teaching hearing-impaired people how to use sign language. The team, she told KUNA, sought to spread the use of sign language on social media, TV channels and public places. Kuwait is the second Arab country to introduce education of the deaf – the ministry of education issued a law in 1965 making it mandatory for people with special needs to get an education. – KUNA
 

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Kuwaiti army chief, Australian commander discuss military issues

KUWAIT: Lieutenant General Khaled Saleh Al-Sabah receives Commander of the Australian Joint Task Force Brigadier General David Paddison. – KUNAKUWAIT: Chief of the General Staff of the Kuwaiti Armed Forces Lieutenant General Sheikh Khaled Saleh Al-Sabah discussed with the Commander of the Australian Joint Task Force Brigadier General David Paddison important matters and topics of…

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Kuwaiti army chief, Australian commander discuss military issues

KUWAIT: Lieutenant General Khaled Saleh Al-Sabah receives Commander of the Australian Joint Task Force Brigadier General David Paddison. – KUNAKUWAIT: Chief of the General Staff of the Kuwaiti Armed Forces Lieutenant General Sheikh Khaled Saleh Al-Sabah discussed with the Commander of the Australian Joint Task Force Brigadier General David Paddison important matters and topics of common interest, especially those related to the military. The general staff said in a press statement yesterday that Sheikh Khaled received Paddison along with his accompanying delegation during his official visit to the country.
During the meeting, the important matters and topics of common interest were discussed, where the chief of staff commended the depth of bilateral ties between both sides. The meeting was attended by Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Army Lt Gen Fahad Al-Nasser, Australian Ambassador to Kuwait Jonathan Gilbert and several senior army commanding officers. – KUNA
 

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Myanmar will not address world leaders at UN General Assembly

Russia and China have reportedly agreed to allow Kyaw Moe Tun to keep Myanmar’s UN seat as long as he does not speak during high-level meeting.No representative from Myanmar is scheduled to address the annual high-level United Nations General Assembly next week, a UN spokesman said, amid rival claims for the country’s UN seat in…

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Myanmar will not address world leaders at UN General Assembly

Russia and China have reportedly agreed to allow Kyaw Moe Tun to keep Myanmar’s UN seat as long as he does not speak during high-level meeting.No representative from Myanmar is scheduled to address the annual high-level United Nations General Assembly next week, a UN spokesman said, amid rival claims for the country’s UN seat in New York after a military coup deposed the elected government.
“At this point, Myanmar is not speaking,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Friday.
Myanmar’s current UN Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun – appointed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government – had initially been expected to address the 193-member General Assembly on Monday, the final day of the gathering.
But diplomats said China, Russia and the United States had reached an understanding, where Moscow and Beijing will not object to Kyaw Moe Tun remaining in Myanmar’s UN seat for the moment as long as he does not speak during the high-level meeting.
“I withdrew from the speaker list, and will not speak at this general debate,” Kyaw Moe Tun told Reuters the news agency, adding that he was aware of the understanding between some members of the UN credentials committee, which includes Russia, China and the US.

Myanmar’s military government has put forward military veteran Aung Thurein to be its UN envoy, while Kyaw Moe Tun has asked to renew his UN accreditation, despite being the target of a plot to kill or injure him for his opposition to the February coup.
UN accreditation issues are dealt with by a nine-member committee, whose members include the US, China and Russia. It traditionally meets in October or November.
Until a decision is made by the credentials committee, Kyaw Moe Tun will remain in the seats, according to the General Assembly rules. The same rule also applies to the representative of Afghanistan.
News of Kyaw Moe Tun’s absence on Monday comes as violence linked to the February 1 coup continues to displace thousands of civilians at home.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was overthrown by the military in February, sparking a nationwide uprising that the military has tried to crush.
Attacks on the military have increased after lawmakers deposed by the generals called for a “people’s defensive war” earlier this month.
News of Kyaw Moe Tun’s absence on Monday comes as violence linked to the February 1 coup continues to displace thousands of civilians at home [File: Osamu Honda/AP]The latest violence was reported in Chin state and Sagaing region in the country’s northwest, with soldiers engaging in battles with armed local defence groups.
More than 1,100 civilians have been killed and nearly 8,000 arrested since the coup, according to local observers.
Coup leaders have defended its power grab by alleging massive fraud during elections in late 2020 which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won by a landslide.
On Thursday, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned of a human rights catastrophe under military rule in Myanmar and urged the international community to do more to prevent the conflict in the country from getting worse.
“The national consequences are terrible and tragic – the regional consequences could also be profound,” she said in a statement.
“The international community must redouble its efforts to restore democracy and prevent wider conflict before it is too late.”

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