Yesterday, Jan. 5, the retrial against both Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez was set to begin. However, after a series of delays, the proceedings against Guatemala´s former dictator and his head of national intelligence were suspended almost as soon as they began.
Almost 19 months have passed since the original trial concluded, on May 10, 2013, when Ríos Montt became the first head of state in Latin America to be convicted in domestic courts of genocide and war crimes. The guilty verdict, however, was annulled just 10 days later by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court on questionable legal grounds.
Last month, the Constitutional Court removed one of the biggest impediments to the new trial — an appeal to send it back to November 2011, before Ríos Montt had been indicted. Although this recent decision cleared the way for a new trial to begin, the matter of a 1986 amnesty law and whether it could apply to Ríos Montt remains unresolved. International groups have reiterated the illegality of any amnesty, as has Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzón.
The retrial, which was set to begin at 8:30 AM on January 5, was initially delayed as Ríos Montt’s defense team sought to excuse him on medical grounds. Ordered by Judge Valdéz to present himself or be declared in contempt of court, Ríos Montt was eventually wheeled into the packed courtroom on a gurney. His defense team attempted to further delay the trial by filing a last minute recusal against Judge Valdéz, arguing that an academic thesis written by Valdéz on genocide in 2004 meant she could not preside fairly over the trial. With two of the three judges from the tribunal accepting the recusal, the trial is now suspended until a new tribunal can be formed.
The Genocide trial is an emblematic case in Guatemala, not only because of the historic nature of the proceedings, but also because it provides a barometer for measuring the strength of the justice system. While the genocide case is the most controversial, numerous other transitional justice cases are awaiting trial and could be impacted by the outcome – or lack of resolution – of the genocide trial.
Eighteen Months After Initial Conviction, Historic Guatemalan Genocide Trial Reopens but is Ultimately Suspended (International Justice Monitor blog, English)
Derecho guatemalteco e internacional prohíben la aplicación de amnistía a los crímenes contra la humanidad y a genocidio (GHRC press release, Spanish)
Guatemalan Genocide Trial Set to Resume Amid Amnesty Battles (Article by Jo-Marie Burt, English)