Human Rights Update, May 11, 2017
Constitutional Court Judges Accused of Criminal Misconduct in Rios Montt Trial
On May 10, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) presented complaints of “prevaricato” against Héctor Pérez Aguilera, Roberto Molina Barreto, and Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, Guatemalan judges who when serving on the Constitutional Court annulled the 2013 trial of Efrian Rios Montt on charges of genocide. The complaint was filed on the four-year anniversary of the historic ruling in which for the first time in the world a national court condemned a former dictator for acts of Genocide.
According to the CALDH, on May 20, 2013, ten days after the acclaimed ruling, these Constitutional Court judges intentionally sustained an illegal appeals court ruling which in effect led to the annulment of the historic genocide trial. The ruling was framed as a response to a motion by a defense lawyer; yet in reality, the motion did not exist. Not only did the judges knowing falsify the facts; they upheld a determination made in relation to an ongoing trial. Guatemalan law only permits appeals after a sentence has been rendered. Also contrary to Guatemalan law, the ruling ordered the suspension of a trial in progress, a procedure not permitted.
“Prevaricato” is a criminal offense specific to judges and other public officials and is punishable by two to six years in prison. Similar to “abuse of authority” or “dereliction of duty,” “prevaricato” occurs when a ruling or determination is issued which is knowingly based on false facts or contrary to the law.
This ruling contributed significantly to the denial of justice to the victims of 17 massacres in the Ixil Maya region of Guatemala. The clear illegality of the Constitutional Court ruling led many to suspect it to be the result of corruption. Corruption of judges is an issue of great concern in Guatemala. Constitutional Court magistrate, Blanca Stalling, was arrested this February on charges of influence trafficking, and the United Nations sponsored International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) has compiled a long and growing list of judges referred to as “Impunity Judges,” whose rulings pervert justice and who are suspected to have participated in corruption. A timely and fair prosecution of the charges presented by CALDH would set an important precedent.
How the Constitutional Court Judges Illegally Suspended the Genocide Trial
On March 19, 2013, a full courtroom awaited the three-judge tribunal that presided the First Circuit High Impact Criminal Court. It was an historic day, the first day of the trial of Guatemalan military dictator Efrian Rios Montt on charges of Acts of Genocide against the Ixil Maya.
Observers were surprised as the three lawyers who had represented Rios Montt throughout pretrial proceedings got up and left, leaving only Francisco Garcia Gudiel. Though one of many lawyers employed in defense of the former military dictator, he had not been present in pre-hearings. After he presented the opening arguments, the proceedings took a strange turn. He began addressing the judges in increasingly hostile and loud terms, while claiming he had a conflict of interest with two of the judges.
Guatemalan law dictates that if lawyers have a conflict of interest with a judge the lawyers must recuse themselves from the proceedings. However, after initiating defense, Garcia Gudiel demanded that the judges recuse themselves based on the assertion that Garcia Gudiel was enemy of the President of the Court Jasmine Barrios and a friend of Judge Pablo Xitumul.
When Judge Barrios rejected his petition, Garcia Gudiel began shouting at the judges, forcing Judge Barrios to expel him from the court. She assigned a lawyer already present in the court to defend Rios Montt for the remainder of the day, a lawyer representing Rios Montt’s co-defendant Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, Chief of Intelligence during the genocide. The following day Rios Montt’s defense team reappeared. Garcia Gudiel later presented a written unconstitutionality motion to the Third Court of Appeals, claiming that Judge Barrios had refused to rule on an oral motion he had presented requesting review of the ruling to expel him from the proceeding. CALDH notes that three times during the course of the trial Judge Barrios gave the opportunity for Rios Montt’s defense to request review of the expulsion.
The trial proceeded and on April 19 the last witness was being heard, when Judge Barrios was notified of a ruling from the Third Court of Appeals ordering the suspension of the trial. The Third Court of Appeals had initially rejected the Garcia Gudiel’s unconstitutionality motion, reasoning that a ruling on Garcia’s expulsion would not change the ongoing proceedings of the court. But on April 18 the court issued a second ruling, this time in response to a motion that had not been presented. While Garcia Gudiel claimed his petition to review his expulsion from the court had not been reviewed, the Third Court of Appeals falsely claimed Garcia Gudiel had also presented a motion asserting that he had requested that the judges review their decision to not recuse themselves, but they had not reviewed that decision.
Knowing that no court can suspend a trial mid-proceedings, Judge Barrios resolved to continue the trial until the Constitutional Court reviewed the Appeals Court ruling. On May 10, the First Circuit High Impact Criminal Court found Efrain Rios Montt guilty of ordering Acts of Genocide. Ten days later, the Constitutional Court upheld the Third Court of Appeals ruling, and ordered that annulment of all proceedings after the April 19th notification.
This Constitutional Court ruling was interpreted as in effect the annulment of the trial. Lawyers at CALDH, the representatives of the victims of the genocide argue that given the gross illegality of the Constitutional Court decision it is inapplicable, and thus the verdict finding Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide is still in effect.
Rios Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez continue under house arrest awaiting trial. Lawyers defending the 90 year-old Rios Montt, now excused from attending the Dos Erres massacre case as a result of his alleged dementia, continue to use delay tactics to stall the case, which had already taken 12 years to reach the 2013 trial.