By Michael Yoakum
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala – The trial of former Guatemalan dictator General Efrain Rios Montt took a surprising turn on Monday when the Constitutional Court overturned Montt’s 80-year sentence for genocide. Citing illegal proceedings at the trial level, the Constitutional Court struck all proceedings in the trial subsequent to April 19.
Trial judges dismissed Rios Montt’s attorney, Francisco Garcia, multiple times throughout the trial for attempting to have the judges recused “for bias”. The Constitutional Court noted that the trial should have been suspended to hear appeals rather than delaying them until after a conviction. Following the Court’s decision, Rios Montt’s attorney told a Washington Post reporter that he would be seeking his client’s freedom on Tuesday.
Rios Montt was on trial for the deaths of 1,771 Ixil Mayans during his 18-month rule as dictator from 1982-83. He originally gained power after a military coup during the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War. Over 100 witnesses came forward to testify at trial about rapes, killing of women and children, and other human rights violations committed by government forces during the period when Rios Montt was in power. The Civil War is estimated to have resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and over a million refugees. However, Rios Montt’s time in power is believed to have been the most violent of the War.
Rios Montt’s conviction marked the first time in history that a head of state was tried and convicted of genocide in a domestic court. His trial was met with heavy opposition from the Foundation Against Terrorism and the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF). Both groups ran advertisements denouncing both the trial and it supporters. The Foundation also brought hundreds of supporters from the Ixil region, including former military and indigenous people, to protest the trial.
Mario Polancko, director of a Guatemalan human rights group, told CNN that the Constitutional Court’s decision had “served the interests of those in power, and when it is one of the representatives of those in power who is on trial, they will resort to any means.” Polancko added, “I think there has been an abuse in the interpretation of the law.”
The Constitutional Court’s ruling does not signal the end of Rios Montt’s legal battle, however. The Court’s Secretary, Martin Guzman, told the Washington Post that the trial must be rolled back to April 19 to address the numerous appeals. Both sides will now have to return to court to redo the final weeks of the trial.
For more information, please see:
BBC News – Guatemala annuls Rios Montt’s genocide conviction – 21 May 2013
CNN – Guatemala genocide conviction overturned – 21 May 2013
The Washington Post – Guatemala’s top court overturns genocide conviction of former leader Efrain Rios Montt – 21 May 2013
Al Jazeera – Guatemala: Rios Montt genocide trial ends with historic verdict – 15 May 2013