Genocide Trial Resumes, Then Is Suspended Once Again

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.

Follow updates on Twitter via @NISGUA_Guate (English), @cmiguate (Spanish) and @HijosGuatemala (Spanish), and by following #EyesonJan5 and #Sihubogenocidio.

Additional Resources:

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)

News Update: October 19-25

Constitutional Court asks lower courts to reconsider Montt for amnesty

A judicial spokesman for Guatemala’s Constitutional Court told Spanish news agency EFE on Wednesday that a court ruling this week (which has not yet been made public) opens the door to amnesty to former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. According to Prensa Libre, the court decision recommended that the case against Rios Montt be dropped, suggesting that he could be protected under a now-defunct 1986 amnesty law made by Guatemala’s then-military regime. Plaza Publica clarifies that the Court only found that Judge Carol Patricia Flores should assess the extent of the 1986 amnesty decree, but did not endorse it.

In a public hearing at the Constitutional Court on Thursday, human rights Prosecutor Érick Geovani de León Morataya denied that Article 8 of the National Reconciliation Law could apply to charges of genocide. He said that Montt and his defense were attempting to use these protections as a means to stall the process.

Read the GHRC statement on the Constitutional Court ruling here.

Independent news channel attacked

On Saturday, October 19, unidentified gunman shot and killed Viltor Garcia, the bodyguard for Karina Rottman, who heads the independent cable news channel VEA Canal. This channel is known for its criticism of the Pérez Molina administration and allots time to individuals and organizations that oppose the government, touching on issues such as: land rights, resource exploitation, and indigenous and campesino (peasant farmer) movements. Rottman says this was the second attack against her in two weeks. This year, there have been more than 80 attacks and threats against journalists.

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Weekly News Round Up Feb. 23-Mar.5

Constitutional Court upholds case closure for Efraín Bámaca’s disappearance
The Constitutional Court (CC) has confirmed the closure of the criminal case involving the forced disappearance of Efraín Bámaca. In March 2011, Bámaca’s widow, Jennifer Harbury, brought a criminal complaint against then presidential candidate Pérez Molina for his role in her husband’s disappearance and death. Bámaca (alias Comandante Everardo) disappeared in 1992. According to the military, he committed suicide, but Harbury says that he was actually detained, tortured and killed. In December 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan government to re-investigate the case of Bámaca’s forced disappearance. Harbury’s lawyer has indicated that he will take action against Pérez Molina for not fulfilling the IACHR’s demands for a re-investigation of the case.

Constitutional Court rejects legal action filed by Toto indigenous leaders
The Constitutional Court (CC) unanimously rejected the legal action filed by the 48 cantones of Totonicapán against the Mining Law. The court’s decision called on Congress to regulate consultation with indigenous communities as established in ILO Convention number 169. The plaintiffs argue that the Mining Law was issued when there was still a right to consultation under the ILO convention and therefore the law is unconstitutional because it does not respect that right. The trial against the soldiers who fired on the group of protesters in Totonicapán last year is still ongoing. One of the defense lawyers for the accused soldiers says that he will ask for an acquittal. He says that his clients were motivated by “an overwhelming fear”, and thus they are innocent.

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