The resumption of the genocide trial against former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt ended as confusingly as it began, in a theatrical first day of renewed proceedings on Monday. Following a three-judge panel’s 2-1 vote that determined that court president Irma Jeannette Valdéz was too biased to judge the case, the trial was suspended for an indefinite period.
On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt—the de-facto dictator of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983—was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity—specifically, the murder of 1771 Maya Ixil people, the forced displacement of 29,000 others, and the torture and rape that took place during the course of 15 massacres in the early 1980s centered around the municipality of Nebaj in Guatemala’s Ixil triangle. Yet that conviction was voided on May 20, 2013 by the Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC)—which ruled that Ríos Montt’s right to a defense had been violated by the expulsion of his combative lawyer, Francisco García Gudiel, on the first day of debate—and the trial was rescheduled for January 2015.
Valdéz, who was one of the three judges on Monday’s panel and president of Tribunal B de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court, which deals with high-profile cases involving crimes like corruption and genocide) rejected an amparo (defense appeal) questioning her impartiality for having written a postgraduate thesis on genocide in Guatemala. However, the other two judges on the panel, Sara Yoc Yoc and Maria Eugenia Castellanos, sided with the defense—effectively ending the trial the day it resumed.
Valdéz, whose 2004 thesis was titled “Criterios para una mejor aplicación del delito por genocidio” (Criteria for a better application of the crime of genocide) said, “It is outrageous to doubt my impartiality after several hearings in which I have made decisions on this case.” She added that her thesis was “a scholarly opinion, not legal.”
Last week, Guatemala’s Court of High Risk “B” (Tribunal de Mayor Riesgo “B”) announced that the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former president, General Efraín Ríos Montt, will not resume until January 2015. The trial was pushed back from an earlier date of April 2014, and by the time proceedings continue, Ríos Montt will be 88 years old.
Ríos Montt had been tried and convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Mayan Ixil people during one of the most violent periods of Guatemala’s civil war. On May 10, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but served just two days before being transferred to a military hospital.
A day later, one of the defense team’s 100-plus amparos—measures designed to provide constitutional protection of individuals—was upheld by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC). The result of the successful amparo was to move the trial back to its middle, where there was a judicial battle over who was to hear the case—Judge Yasmin Barrios or Judge Carol Patricia Flores.
The ruling backtracked on previous declarations that the trial would not return to a previous date. It also contradicted Guatemalan law, which states once a verdict is delivered, the defendant must continue their legal fight in the Appeals Court.
Since then, the original trial judges have recused themselves on the grounds that they have already issued a judgment. Dozens of judges have avoided hearing the case for fear of repercussions, and in October, the CC reopened the possibility that Ríos Montt may be granted amnesty, based on a 1986 presidential decree by former President Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores that barred prosecutions for political crimes committed during Mejía and Ríos Montt’s administrations.
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.
The impasse in the genocide trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt should be cleared this week, following a succession of rulings by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. On Monday afternoon, the court turned the case back over to presiding Judge Yassmín Barrios, who looked to resume the trial on Tuesday morning.
However, the 8:30 am proceedings were halted when Rios Montt's attorneys failed to show up, leading Judge Barrios to suspend the trial for two more days. May 1 is a national holiday in Guatemala, and it remains to be seen whether there will be a defense team in place when the trial resumes on Thursday. If not, Ríos Montt will be assigned a public defender.
The historic genocide trial against Ríos Montt and his former intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, has been on hold since April 19, pending a Constitutional Court decision on how and when to proceed after Ríos Montt’s defense counsel abruptly walked out of the trial on April 18 in protest. On April 19, Judge Carol Patricia Flores stopped the trial—which was then being presided over by Judge Barrios—after she was reinstated by the Constitutional Court.
The news comes against a backdrop of increasingly powerful demonstrations by survivors and human rights groups on the one side, and by Ríos Montt sympathizers and ex-military veterans on the other. On Friday, Guatemala commemorated the anniversary of the murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, a co-author of a report by the Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado (Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric—ODHA) that documented over 400 massacres by the army during Guatemala’s 36-year internal conflict. Gerardi was murdered two days after the report was published in 1998. As a convoy of buses made its way from Nebaj, at the centre of the Ixil triangle where Ríos Montt is accused of ordering the deaths of 1,771 people, many Ríos Montt sympathizers carried inflammatory banners such as, “Hairy Hippies and Foreigners, Stop Making Money off the Lie of Genocide!”
El juicio por genocidio y deberes contra la humanidad en contra de los ex-generales Efraín Ríos Montt y José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez dio inicio este martes, luego que la licenciada Jazmín Barrios, Jueza Presidenta del Tribunal A de Mayor Riesgo, resolviera de manera negativa varios recursos interpuestos por la defensa y declarara abierto el debate.
El juicio estaba contemplado inicialmente para dar comienzo el 14 de agosto de este año; sin embargo, el Tribunal A de Mayor Riesgo lo adelantó para el 19 de marzo. Con anterioridad, la Corte de Constitucionalidad rechazó una solicitud de amnistía presentada por la defensa de Ríos Montt. Los abogados de los encausados en reiteradas ocasiones han argumentado que se ha violentado el proceso y que se han violado los derechos de los señalados, pues las pruebas ofrecidas de descargo no han sido aceptadas por el Tribunal que conoció en Primera Instancia.
La discusión de fondo se centra en la existencia o no del delito de genocidio imputado a ambos procesados. Durante la audiencia, hubo momentos en que la jueza tuvo que llamar la atención del público, que reaccionó en contra de uno de los alegados del defensor del General Ríos Montt, Francisco García Gudiel, quién señaló a organizaciones internacionales y peritos de haber recibido grandes cantidades de dinero para emitir sus criterios.
La sala de vistas de la Corte Suprema de Justicias se vio abarrotada. Se calcula que participaron más de 350 personas, público que se ubicó de acuerdo con sus posturas en lugares según estén a favor o en contra del enjuiciamiento. En las afueras, organizaciones de derechos humanos se encontraron a la espera del resultado de la primera sesión de un juicio que ha sido calificado como histórico.
After years of appeals, Efrain Ríos Montt, Guatemala's former military dictator who ruled from 1982 to 1983, stood trial in the country’s first genocide trial that began on Tuesday. Ríos Montt is accused of being responsible for 15 massacres that took the lives of a combined 1,771 Ixil Mayas and forcibly displaced an additional 29,000.
The massacres were part of a counterinsurgency campaign against leftist groups based in Guatemala’s mostly Indigenous western highlands. Along with former head of intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, Ríos Montt is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity and is being tried by three judges from the Supreme Court’s Tribunal Primero A de Mayor Riesgo (First High-Risk Tribunal A). This marks the first time that a former head of state has been tried for genocide in a domestic court.
Last March, the 86-year-old former dictator was denied amnesty under the 1996 National Reconciliation Law on the grounds that the law denies such protection to those accused of genocide, torture or forced disappearances. Prosecutors admit that there was never a direct order from Ríos Montt to massacre the victims in the Quiche Department where the guerillas were based. But they hope to prove that the leader had knowledge of the acts due to the absolute power granted to him by the military chain of command. His lack of action, they argue, is proof of his complicity. Guatemalan prosecutors have successfully prosecuted other military officers with similar evidence in the past, leading to speculation that Ríos Montt could be found guilty at the end of his six-week trial.
The first day of the trial saw the ex-dictator’s legal team abruptly quit. They were replaced by defense attorney Francisco García Gudiel who tried, unsuccessfully, to file motions to block the proceedings on procedural grounds. He was later dismissed from the courtroom for accusing Judge Jazmin Barrios of bias against him. The three-judge panel appointed a new defense lawyer to represent Ríos Montt for the remainder of his trial.
On June 20th, Guatemala asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to declare itself incompetent in ruling on a series of massacres against Mayan villagers in Río Negro between 1980 and 1982. More significantly, the State publicly rejected the notion that these were acts of genocide, and Secretary of Peace Antonio Arenales Forno went on to say, not for the first time, that genocide had never occurred in Guatemala.
Current President Otto Pérez Molina, in contrast to his predecessor Álvaro Colom, has too asserted that genocide did not take place in Guatemala. Pérez Molina notes that most members of the military were of indigenous blood—his personal estimates range from 70-90 percent. In a July 2011 interview with journal Plaza Pública, he commented, “How can it possibly be called genocide when ixiles were fighting ixiles?” He further stated that no population was targeted on the grounds of ethnicity or religion: “It wasn’t as though we said, ‘All of the kakchiqueles or the kichés or the ixiles will be exterminated.’” Rather, Pérez Molina claims those affected were people involved in the actions of war and its battlefield, many of whom happened to be indigenous Mayans.
The massacres that occurred in towns like Río Negro and Dos Erres tell a different story. In 1982, the Guatemalan military arrived in Dos Erres with an order to "vaccinate" the community. Nearly all members of the town were brutally murdered: babies were thrown into a well, children’s heads smashed against walls, and unborn fetuses cut from mothers’ wombs. This case and others point to a clear targeting of non-combatants. Only two young boys were spared at Dos Erres, both with fair skin and green eyes. They were taken from the town and raised by members of the military.
Pérez Molina’s claims are inconsistent not only with past events but with the very definition of genocide. The definition established at the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed and ratified by Guatemala, nowhere mentions whether the perpetrators of violence may share ethnic origins with their victims. It qualifies genocide as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: Killing members of the group…Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The Guatemalan government has previously acknowledged that these acts occurred at Dos Erres and in other locations throughout the country.
Judge Miguel Angel Galvez denied former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt's appeal for amnesty in a genocide case yesterday. The charges were originally filed by Judge Carol Patricia Flores Blanco in January and allege that General Ríos Montt was involved in the death of 1,771 individuals and the displacement of 29,000 Indigenous Guatemalans during the 36-year civil war. The January decision case marked the first time a Latin American president was charged with genocide.
Ríos Montt appealed the January decision on the grounds that he is protected by a 1986 amnesty law. However, the ruling yesterday signaled that the international treaty against genocide, signed by Guatemala in 1973, discounts any amnesty protection. "There are crimes like genocide and crimes against humanity that have no statute of limitations, and for that reason there can be no amnesty decree," said Galvez. But Francisco Palomo, Ríos Montt's defense lawyer, said the Constitutional Court will be the one to ultimately decide the case.
Ríos Montt took power in a 1982 coup and served as leader of the military junta until the following year. After an unsuccessful presidential run in 2003, the former general went on to win a congressional seat in 2007 as part of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Republican Front). Guatemalan electoral laws protect congressional representatives from prosecution, and Ríoss Montt was untouchable until his term ended on January 14. Retired Generals Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez and Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, who served under Ríos Montt in the 1980s, are also being charged.