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!”Judge Flores had presided over evidentiary proceedings in the Ríos Montt case until November 2011, when the defense claimed that she was not an impartial judge and Flores was recused from the case. The proceedings continued under Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, who placed the case before the court of Judge Barrios.
Last Friday, the Constitutional Court said that the newly-reinstated Judge Flores was required to accept documents, expert reports and witnesses from the defense that Judge Gálvez had previously declared inadmissible—a request that the Constitutional Court had made two times before. In an emotionally charged courtroom, Judge Flores played back the audio from a hearing in February 2012 under Judge Gálvez, demonstrating why the exculpatory evidence should be processed. The defense tried to withdraw all their exculpatory evidence, but were stopped by Judge Flores, who said she was acting “in compliance with the orders of the Constitutional Court in this hearing.”
The Constitutional Court must still ascertain whether Judge Flores overstepped her legal boundaries by ordering to take the trial back to November 23, 2011, the day before Flores was recused and Judge Gálvez took over. The major problem with reverting to November 2011 is that Ríos Montt was not a defendant in the trial at that time. He was a member of Guatemala’s congress, and thus had congressional immunity. Francisco Palomo, the defense counsel for Rodríguez Sánchez, said, “There is a conflict of decisions. You have no objections [over Flores’ decision to revert to November 2011].”
What has now become the battle for the history of Guatemala could even reach a verdict by next week. Given the sheer number of appeals in the case, the Constitutional Court, the prosecution, or the defense could cause a further delay in the trial. With numerous appeals on both sides to be resolved, there remains doubt as to how this historic prosecution will reach its conclusion.