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Guatemalan Court Annuls Ríos Montt Verdict

By a majority of 3-2 the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled on Monday to throw out General Efrain Rios Montt’s guilty verdict and 80-year sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity, returning the trial to the proceedings of April 19.

The Constitutional Court also threw out the acquittal of former intelligence chief Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez.  The court has 24 hours to comply with the order and moves are already underway by the defense to have Judge Yasmín Barrios and the two other judges, Pablo Xitumul and Patricia Bustamante, recused from the case.

"The court ensured justice,” said defense counsel Francisco García Gudiel on Monday.  “There were many too many legal aberrations in this case, and time and again we have been proven right.”

Observers are waiting for the written judgment to come through from Constitutional Court Secretary General Martín Guzmán.  However, the ruling seems to backtrack on previous statements that the trial could not be returned to a prior date. It may also go against Guatemalan law, which states that once a verdict has been reached, the trial cannot be returned to a previous date and must instead  be dealt with in the Appeals Court.

The decision returns the trial to April 19, when Judge Barrios and Judge Carol Patricia Flores argued over who had jurisdiction over the hearing.  Judge Flores, who presided over a portion of the pretrial hearing, wanted to return the trial to November 23, 2011, the day before she was recused.  Judge Barrios refused to do this and continued the trial, calling the move illegal and an overreach of Flores’ power.  The Constitutional Court has since ruled that the trial should have been suspended while the legal arguments were heard.

Many questions remain about the Constitutional Court’s judgment.  Ríos Montt, who has been in the military hospital for over a week with high blood pressure and cholesterol, could now be released.  If Judge Barrios is removed from the case, which three-judge team would take over, and would they reach the same verdict?  How can the trial continue from April 19 once jurisdiction issues are solved?  Will the defense witnesses return to the stand?  Given that Judge Barrios used General Quilo Ayuso’s testimony in issuing her decisions, this would appear unlikely.  Finally, will the prosecution ask for the same sentence now that they know the potential penalties that can be enforced?

Judge Barrios also ordered the government to apologize to the Mayan Ixil, 1,771 of whom were murdered during Ríos Montt’s administration and who are the reason for the trial.  Reparations to the survivors and families of the deceased are pending. It is now unclear whether an official apology and reparations will be allowed to proceed.

After the court’s ruling on Monday, prosecution attorney Hector Reyes asked, "What is wrong in the State of Guatemala?  With this we are left with an impasse." 

The Constitutional Court’s ruling arrived on the heels of a growing backlash against Judge Barrios’ May 10 verdict. Military and business sectors are complaining about “international intervention” in domestic affairs.  As numerous other unheard appeals mount up from both sides, the chances of a mistrial being called are increasing.

*Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Efraín Ríos Montt, genocide

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