Ruling against hate

April 11, 2005

`GO BACK TO the market and sell tomatoes, Indian." That comment and some physical aggression may land five Gua- temalan politicians in prison.

In a landmark ruling last week, a Guatemalan court struck an important blow against prejudice toward Mayan Indians by finding the politicians guilty of racial discrimination. The defendants, high-ranking politicians - one of them a member of the Central American Parliament - pushed and spat at a Mayan woman at a political protest rally two years ago while insulting her with ethnic slurs.

Though public disdain of Mayans is commonplace in Guatemala, the offenders made the mistake of insulting Rigoberta Menchu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist.

Ms. Menchu is renowned for her efforts to combat discrimination against indigenous people throughout the Americas. After all these years of standing up for others, standing up for herself had the most visible impact. The politicians, whose actions were considered acts of physical aggression, are members of the political party that ran the country at the time. Ms. Menchu was a supporter of the opposition party now in control and is its official good-will ambassador.

The court's decision, the first of its kind since antidiscrimination laws were codified in 2002, is reverberating throughout Guatemala, where 60 percent of the population is Mayan. Prosecutors recently agreed to investigate another case after heavy media coverage, and the government is now considering increasing the fines and jail time for violations of the law.

Though Guatemala has a long way to go toward eradicating its entrenched racial system, the ruling should at least serve as an example throughout Latin America, where indigenous people are routinely jailed, murdered and forced off land.

Fair-minded Guatemalans should now speak out against widely used dress codes that deny people wearing traditional Mayan clothing entry to restaurants, bars and other social venues.

The offending politicians were fined $400 each and sentenced to three years in prison; however, they can pay higher fines to avoid serving time.

For Mayans who have long endured public humiliation, job discrimination and exclusion from government social programs, the verdict was meaningful.

JosM-i Carlos Marroquin, editor of the newspaper La Hora, called the Menchu case "a reflection of what we have been enduring in our society for many years. There was a sense that people could get away with it."

The Guatemalan courts can guarantee that no one does, by protecting the rights and dignity of all Mayan people, especially those less influential than Ms. Menchu.

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