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Guatemala's First Discrimination Trial Opens

A high profile trial opened Tuesday in Guatemala City where five individuals are accused of discrimination against Guatemala's Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Mayan Indian activist, Rigoberta Menchu. This is the first trial for discrimination to be heard in Guatemala.

Supporters of Rigoberta Menchu applauded when the president of the three-judge panel declared the start of the trial, in a large, theater-like courtroom. Rights activists here are hailing this as a historic case for Guatemalan justice.

Ms. Menchu is foremost among them.

This is the first trial about racism and discrimination to be heard in Guatemala, she says, adding that the accusation is based not just on a physical act, but words and gestures, the kinds of racist acts that occur every day in Guatemala but have never been considered crimes.

The accusation stems from an incident two years ago, when a rowdy crowd of supporters of former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt allegedly shoved and shouted racial epithets at Ms. Menchu inside Guatemala's constitutional court. That day the court ruled that a constitutional ban on former dictators running for president did not apply to former General Rios Montt.

Ms. Menchu, who has accused Efrain Rios Montt of genocide against the Maya in Spanish courts, was staunchly opposed to his candidacy.

After the incident she filed a criminal complaint for aggression and discrimination, among other charges. Mr. Rios Montt's grandson is among the five defendants.

Francisco Garcia is the defense lawyer. He says that what happened that day does not constitute discrimination.

The crime of discrimination occurs when someone's rights are restricted because of their race, religion or ethnicity, he says, but if someone calls you Indian or something else it is an insult, not a crime, its not discrimination, he says."

Menchu's lawyer and the state attorneys co-prosecuting the case, acknowledge the complexity of their case and their argument. Nonetheless, they believe they can convince the judges that the racial aggression Ms. Menchu suffered constitutes discrimination.

Meanwhile activists hope this case will open the path for many more Maya Indians to seek justice for discrimination. The trial is expected to last a week.