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Guatemala strikes down ex-dictator's conviction

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt listens to his sentence in Guatemala City, on May 10, 2013
Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt listens to his sentence in Guatemala City, on May 10, 2013. Guatemala's Constitutional Court has struck down the 80-year sentence given to Rios Montt as well as his conviction for genocide and war crimes.

Guatemala's Constitutional Court has struck down the 80-year sentence given to former dictator Efrain Rios Montt as well as his conviction for genocide and war crimes.

The ruling, by three votes to two, annulled all proceedings that took place after the trial was temporarily halted on April 19 due to a technicality.

This overturned the May 10 conviction but left most of the trial and testimony intact.

It was not immediately clear whether the proceedings from April 19 could be repeated, nor whether Rios Montt, 86, would remain in prison.

"The sentence is hereby annulled" on appeal from Rios Montt's lawyers, said Constitutional Court spokesman Martin Guzman.

The court upheld the lawyers' claim of a procedural error during the trial and therefore struck down the conviction and sentencing.

The procedural error occurred when the court that convicted the former dictator refused to review an appeal put forward by defense attorney Francisco Garcia, the constitutional court said.

"All Guatemalans are the winners from this ruling," said Moises Galindo, another defense lawyer for Rios Montt.

Efrain Rios Montt ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983
Map locating Guatemala where the Constitutional Court has struck down the 80-year sentence given to former dictator Efrain Rios Montt as well as his conviction for genocide and war crimes.

He said the judges should follow due process and constitutional law rather than being swayed by "ideology, interest groups and international pressure."

Rios Montt was rushed to a military hospital a week ago after fainting in court before a hearing on reparations for victims, his lawyer said.

Dozens of his supporters flocked to the hospital to show solidarity after learning of the ruling.

"This is good news for the country because it shows that the Constitutional Court has aligned itself with the law and asked (the court) to respect due process," said Jose Santiago Molina, president of Cacif, which groups together agricultural, commercial, industrial and financial associations.

Human rights groups involved in the case declined to comment immediately.

Rios Montt's conviction made him the first Latin American ex-dictator to be convicted of trying to exterminate an entire people, during a brief but particularly gruesome stretch of a war that started in 1960, dragged on for 36 years and left around 200,000 people dead or missing.

Under his rule, the army carried out a scorched earth policy against indigenous peoples, accusing them of backing rebel forces.

Rios Montt and his former intelligence chief Jose Rodriguez were charged with ordering the army to carry out 15 massacres that left 1,771 Maya Ixil Indians dead in Quiche in northern Guatemala. Rodriguez was acquitted.

Some 200,000 people were killed or vanished without a trace in the country's 1960-1996 civil war, according to a 1999 UN-sponsored report. More than 90 percent of the human rights violations took place between 1978 and 1984.

Martin Guzman answers questions during a press conference in Guatemala City, on May 20, 2013
Martin Guzman -- the secretary-general of Guatemala's Constitutional Court -- answers questions during a press conference in Guatemala City, on May 20, 2013.

During the trial, Rios Montt strenuously denied the charges, saying: "I did not engage in genocide."

"I never authorized, never signed, never ordered an attack against a race, an ethnicity or a religion. I never did it!"

Following the initial conviction, the United States said it was a chance for the Central American nation to move towards reconciliation.