The genocide trial of Rios Montt

In March began the trial of ex-Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt, who is accused of having orchestrated genocide and crimes against humanity during his 1982-1983 rule. While the trial is an achievement in itself, obscure legal battles make its outcome highly unpredictable.

Ex-Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt goes on trial for genocide. Demotix/Hiroko Tanaka. All rights reserved. Rios Montt goes on trial for genocide. Demotix/Hiroko Tanaka. All rights reserved.

On March 19, the trial against General Efraín Ríos Montt, the former de facto Guatemalan head of state, and his former head of military intelligence, General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, began in Guatemala City. Ríos Montt took power in a military coup in March 1982 and the two of them are accused of orchestrating genocide and crimes against humanity against rural Mayan communities as the intellectual authors of the killings of 1,771 individuals and the forced displacement of thousands from the Ixil triangle region of southern Quiché department.

A 1999 UN-backed truth commission found that during Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-1996) some 200,000 people were killed or disappeared. After documenting more than 600 massacres, the commission attributed 93 percent of the human rights violations to the Guatemalan state and concluded that genocide had occurred between 1981 and 1983. The commission also found that 1982 - the year Ríos Montt seized power - was the year in which almost half of the torture, massacres, rapes, and enforced disappearances committed during the entire conflict took place.

The shadow of the past hangs heavily over present-day Guatemala. To this day the truth commission’s finding of genocide is still denied by prominent public figures. The day after Ríos Montt was formally linked to the genocide case in January 2012, newly-sworn in Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina publicly stated that genocide had never occurred. And in a meeting with a Guatemalan business group on March 13, Molina reportedly repeated this view. Other high-ranking government officials have openly shared this opinion over the past year, leaving human rights groups to question the current administration’s commitment to dealing with the horrors of the past. Most recently, on April 16, President Molina joined other former government officials and signatories of the 1996 peace accords in raising concerns that the genocide trial could endanger the peace. 

Ríos Montt’s trial is historic because it is the first time a former head of state in Central America has been on trial for genocide. Yet, most of those suspected of criminal responsibility for the crimes of the conflict years have so far evaded justice. And many alleged perpetrators successfully avoid accountability through the use of countless procedural appeals and similar tactics. 

In 2011, during the pre-trial phase, defense lawyers requested that the first instance court Judge Carol Flores be recused from the case because of alleged partiality against the defense. Judge Flores was recused and Judge Galvez (from another first instance court) stepped in. One of the rights groups working with the prosecution challenged Judge Flores’s recusal, but the case nevertheless moved forward. In late 2012, Judge Flores’s recusal was overturned by the Constitutional Court, but shockingly Flores was not notified until April 2013, while the parties were not notified until April 17.

During the pre-trial phase, Ríos Montt’s lawyers also sought to include a number of favorable witnesses and evidence to the case. In February, Judge Galvez denied the defense’s request on the grounds that the evidence was irrelevant to the issue to be tried. The defense appealed Judge Galvez’s ruling. Recognizing that the issue was pending before the Constitutional Court, Judge Jazmín Barrios, the president of the tribunal (or trial court) that oversees the genocide trial, permitted the defense to present all the witnesses and experts they had proposed, and all the defense witnesses who showed up to trial were able to testify.

On April 18 – day twenty of the trial - after more than 100 witnesses had already testified and the trial was nearing its conclusion, some of the procedural appeals by the defense team seemed to take root. An April 3 ruling by the Constitutional Court had ordered that documents and experts submitted by the defense be admitted into evidence. This decision was communicated to the re-instated Judge Flores. On the morning of April 18, the whole defense team insisted that the trial be suspended by arguing that, even though Judge Barrios had already incorporated the disputed defense witnesses and evidence into the trial, Judge Barrios had violated the law by not abiding by the April 3 Constitutional Court decision. The court adjourned after the entire defense team walked out.

In an afternoon hearing on the same April 18, Judge Flores ruled that it was incorrect to continue the trial after the April 3 decision and ordered the annulment of the trial, sending the legal process back to the pre-trial phase of November 2011, before her recusal. 

Human rights lawyers representing the prosecution witnesses and victims were outraged. They and the Public Prosecutor’s office called Judge Flores’s annulment decision illegal and vowed to challenge it in court. On April 19, Judge Barrios refused to accept the annulment, calling it illegal, but did suspend proceedings, in expectation that the Constitutional Court would issue a ruling on the matter. Since the April 3 Constitutional Court ruling did not call for the trial to be annulled, even the Constitutional Court spokesperson appeared surprised and apparently bewildered by Judge Flores’s interpretation.

Throughout all of last week, a series of at least twelve distinct motions and appeals were being considered by various appeals courts. On April 23, the Constitutional Court ordered Judge Barrios’s trial court to transfer the case file to Judge Flores for her to make the order consistent with the April 3 decision. On Thursday April 25, the Constitutional Court issued a clarification of its April 3 ruling at the request of Judge Flores, which explained that its decision to admit defense witnesses into evidence should be followed ‘exactly.’ On Friday April 26 Judge Flores convened a hearing to admit the disputed evidence, and returner the case to Judge Barrios’s trial court on Tuesday April 30.

Despite all the tactics and appeals to delay the process, it is significant that the case has made even this much progress. When human rights and witness groups started their campaign in 2001, it was not clear that this courageous effort to hold Ríos Montt, along with other high-level figures, accountable for genocide and other crimes would ever see a courtroom. And it is clear that they will not give up on finding the truth about who was ultimately responsible for the death, disappearance, rape, and torture of their loved ones.

About the author

Matthew Kennis is the Guatemala Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA.

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