Rioss Montt Trial to Resume Amid Expectations and Uncertainties


The historic trial of former de facto head of state Efrain Rios Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriquez Sanchez, has been suspended since Friday, April 19.  When the trial reconvenes on Tuesday April 30, it will do so in an environment of complex legal challenges, powerful political forces, and intense emotions.

Rios Montt and Rodreguez Sanchez are being prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity, for violence committed against Ixil communities in the Guatemalan highlands during Rios Montt’s 17-month rule from March 1982 to August 1983.  The trial, which marks the first time a former head of state has been prosecuted for genocide in the domestic courts where the crimes occurred, commenced March 19, 2013.

After nearly four weeks of fast–paced and dramatic testimony, with more than 120 witnesses packed into 20 days of public hearings, the process came to an abrupt halt on April 19.  Following the April 18 walk-out by all of the defense lawyers in the morning, and a problematic ruling by a judge in another branch of the judiciary that same afternoon, presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios suspended the trial until these issues (the actions of the defense attorneys, and the rulings by Judge Carol Patricia Flores) could be resolved.

During the suspension, press reports referred to the trial as mortally tangled in “legal labyrinth,” due to more than a dozen legal challenges (amparos) before several different courts within the Guatemala judiciary.  Only half of the reported 12 legal challenges have been resolved.

However, despite the pending decisions, on Monday April 29, the case files were returned to Judge Barrios, following the orders by the Constitutional Court that Judge Patricia Flores must resolve the issue of incorporation of the defense’s evidence, and only that, and then return the case file to Judge Barrios within 24 hours.  Once this was accomplished (Monday afternoon), Judge Barrios moved swiftly to alert the parties that the trial would resume Tuesday morning.

At least six amparos remain before various branches of the Guatemalan judiciary, including the Constitutional Court.  One significant outstanding amparo involves Rios Montt’s contention that he should benefit from a 1986 amnesty.  Although this appears to lack a legal basis (the 1996 Law of National Reconciliation supersedes earlier amnesties, and expressly excludes the crime of genocide), analysts close to the process have observed that any legal challenge has the potential to significantly delay or disrupt the process.

Moreover, the Constitutional Court continues to insist that it does not need to resolve the polemics surrounding Judge Flores’ decision of April 18 to return the case to its status as of November 23, 2011.  According to the Constitutional Court, it has not received appropriate legal objections from any of the parties—last Thursday, the Constitutional Court said that it had only received a ‘fax’ from Judge Barrios concerning the issue.  For some observers, this is an unsettling indication that the Constitutional Court is leaving the issue aside for now, perhaps to exercise its authority at another stage in the process.

Several additional issues could complicate a clear conclusion to the proceedings this week.

First, Judge Barrios must address how the decision to incorporate the defense’s (previously excluded) evidence will affect the trial going forward.  As Judge Barrios had provisionally allowed for defense evidence to be presented, it is unclear whether further remedies are required.

Second, the Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday April 23 that Rios Montt’s rights had been compromised when one of his attorneys, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, was expelled from the courtroom on the first day of the trial.  It is up to Judge Barrios to take appropriate action to rectify the fact that Rios Montt had a defense lawyer not of his choosing for a portion of that day.

Third, and relatedly, Judge Barrios will clearly face a difficult situation vis-a-vis the status of the defendants’ lawyers. All of the defense lawyers left the courtroom April 18, announcing their “peaceful resistance” to the process.  Despite Judge Barrios repeated attempts to tell the lawyers that they did not have permission to leave, the lawyers left the courtroom anyway.  It remains to be seen whether the defense attorneys will be subject to contempt of court charges, for abandoning their clients, and, if so, whether this will affect their ability to serve.  When the defense attorneys did not appear in court on April 19, the day Judge Barrios suspended the trial, Judge Barrios announced that she would request that public defenders be appointed, but, to date, no information about any such appointments has been made public.

The trial resumes after a period fraught with tension and uncertainty. Last week, demonstrations for and against the resumption of the trail occurred in the capital.  Significant social and political leaders issued a statement demanding that the trial be completed, while others opined that the trial threatened Guatemala’s (purported) social stability.

When the trial was suspended April 19, many observers believed the process had less than two days before completion. While the prosecution had concluded its evidence (nearly 130 witnesses and experts had provided testimony and reports), the defense had just six witnesses pending.  Judge Barrios had informed the defense that all of their remaining witnesses could be heard in one day, or less.  (She noted that the prosecution had produced up to 12 witnesses in one day.)  After the conclusion of the evidence, the defense and prosecution each have up to two hours to make closing arguments.  Although the trial is in its final stages, getting through these last few days could be quite difficult.

A bomb threat April 29 in the capital prompted the evacuation of a building where the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procurador de los Derechos Humanos, or PDH) was holding an event to present its Annual Report on the Law of Public Access to Information.  The event was moved to a different location.