Historic Guatemala Dictator Conviction Thrown Out for Now

Human Rights

Up to 1,500 protestors gathered in Guatemala City and surrounding Latin American countries on Friday to condemn the Guatemala Constitutional Court’s decision to annul the trial of former Guatemalan military president José Efraín Ríos Montt.

On May 10, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in ordering the deaths of 1,771 people of the Ixil Maya ethnic group while in office from 1982-'83. The court sentenced the ex de-facto president to 80 years imprisonment.

However, 10 days later, the Guatemala Constitutional Court reversed the decision by a 3:2 ruling panel, citing procedural errors during the trial. At issue was the fact that Ríos Montt was briefly left without legal representation after his defense team walked out of the court in protest of "illegal proceedings." At that time, the court held, the trial should have been halted.  

As a result, the court ordered a suspension of the trial pending a resolution of the legal challenges raised by the defense, setting aside the guilty verdict and ruling that the trial would begin from the point it stood on April 19.

Amnesty International said it was a "devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict,” the BBC reported.

Similarly, Diana Duarte of MADRE told AlterNet that the move was a slap in the face for indigenous rights activists and victims who had faced genocide and crimes against humanity and spent years fighting to obtain justice.

“There was a moment when the verdict was handed down that we felt that impunity had not prevailed, that people would obtain justice. Unfortunately that moment was short-lived and turned around in a matter of days,” Duarte said.

The monumental trial of Ríos Montt sets a precedent as the first time an ex-head of state has faced genocide before a national court rather than an international tribunal. Over Guatemala’s 36-year bloody civil war, some 200,000 people were killed with Montt’s time in power described as the most violent period. The decision came 30 years after the crimes had been committed and 13 years after the case was first brought forward for investigation.

While legal proceedings continue, the annulment has placed the entire trial in jeopardy and raised questions about whether there is any real hope for democracy in an already weakened legal system. The judicial reasoning for the annulment is also unclear and confusing even for Guatemalan legal experts, fueling further speculation over the real impetus for the sudden overturn of the decision.

According to International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Mary Speck, based in Guatemala, the full implications of the case are still unknown at this stage.

“The ambiguity around the decision leads to speculation about the real motivations of the case and that is damaging. In order to move forward, the decision needs to be clear – this is essential for transitional justice,” Speck told AlterNet.

Equally puzzling is why the court ordered that the same trial court reconvene to consider the case when this undoubtedly increases the risk of further interruptions should either legal team object on the basis of bias. Questions of fact are also in dispute, with two judges offering very strong dissenting opinions.

Judge Chacon, in his dissent, openly criticized the court’s decision as disproportionate, declaring that there was nothing that rose to a level of a constitutional violation that justified an annulment given that the trial court had already issued a sentence. The judge condemned the actions of Ríos Montt’s defense attorney as “intentionally obstructionist” and went so far as to say that there was no justification for the Constitutional Court to blame the trial court judges when their actions did not invoke anything that suggested a lack of impartiality.

Guatemala Human Rights Commission’s (GHRC) Kathryn Johnson agrees with the dissenting opinion, describing to AlterNet how this is a major oversight of the Constitutional Court.

“The Constitutional Court is only supposed to rule on constitutional issues. This was clearly not a constitutional matter and therefore should have been handled by the ordinary courts. The Constitutional Court overstepped its boundaries by ruling after the verdict had already been issued, thereby preventing it from going through the normal appeals process,” Johnson said.

Furthermore, the court’s ruling that only statements before April 19 will stand may mean that victims who gave testimony about the atrocities they suffered -- including systematic rape and sexual violence against women, infanticide, destruction of crops to induce starvation and forced displacement of surviving populations -- may now be faced with having to re-testify.

This presents difficulties in terms of transportation since many of these witnesses live in rural, isolated areas with limited access to public transport and thus cannot easily commute to and from Guatemala City where the trial is being conducted.  

What’s more, as Johnson points out, many of the witnesses and victims are facing serious threats of violence.

“Whether or not [witnesses] will re-trust a system which has since failed them to come forward again is uncertain. We have seen the re-victimization of witnesses in the courtroom and in their home communities they face defamation and ostracization,” she said.

In addition, there have been increasing security concerns in Guatemala for human rights activists, witnesses and judges who have been viewed as supporting a guilty verdict since the trial.  

With politics at play, it is no secret that over the past few weeks, the Constitutional Court has been subject to explicit economic and political pressure by various pro-Ríos Montt governmental supporters, prompting concern that the verdict would be annulled.

According to Open Society Justice, bomb threats were made at the Constitutional Court and against government offices as well as threats made by Ríos Montt’s own defense team of "national paralysis" if the court did not rule in its favor.     

The court has also been met with forceful pressure from Comité de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras, (CACIF) Guatemala’s most powerful pro-Ríos Montt business association, which fought to overturn the verdict to avoid being labeled "genocidal" on par with the Nazis. CACIF has also been accused of funding private militia groups to generate support for Ríos Montt through promises of government welfare programs.

Additional reports confirm that 12 ex-government officials including former Guatemalan vice presidents and peace negotiators published a paid advertisement condemning the trial on the basis that it was a threat to national reconciliation and peace. On the same day demonstrations broke out in Guatemala last Friday, pro-Rios Montt supporters also rallied in Guatemala City denouncing communism and chanting that there was no genocide in Guatemala. Even Guatemala’s own leader, President Otto Perez Molina, on the date of the verdict, denied that genocide ever occurred in the country.

With such extensive political pressure, an annulment comes as no surprise. It is therefore important, as Washington Office on Latin America’s Jo-Marie Burt told AlterNet, that such influences and insider contacts do not completely derail the process of justice.

“This is all about politics. It’s about the de-facto powers that have so much force and control in Guatemala. We must preserve the rule of law in Guatemala at large,” she stressed.

Diane Duarte of MADRE agrees: “There are those who don’t want Ríos Montt to face accountability. The whole point of these politically motivated efforts has been to confuse the issues and slow down the process of justice,” she said.

Meanwhile, the US has also come under fire for its role in supporting the Guatemala genocide. A UN Truth Commission in 1999 revealed that the US provided direct training and financial resources to Guatemalan troops responsible for committing acts of genocide as part of the Reagan administration’s campaign against communism.

With such powerful forces at play and a decision clearly emanating from such heavy influences, the question remains whether a verdict against Ríos Montt is still possible to end impunity once and for all.

According to ICG’s Mary Speck, there is still hope: “I don’t think this trial is over by any means. It is facing huge obstacles but this has brought the question of human rights violations and genocide to the core of a much needed debate,” the senior analyst told AlterNet.

Despite an uncertain outcome, the people of Guatemala remain resilient in their quest to fight for justice, even in the face of continuous threats of violence and harassment. At its core, the trial represents an unprecedented step in the right direction toward holding those who commit such atrocities against their own populations accountable for their actions.

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