Guatemalan Court Suspends Genocide Retrial of Former Dictator

A witness testifies during Rios Montt's first genocide trial.<br>Credit: Elena Hermosa/Trocair
A witness testifies during Rios Montt’s first genocide trial.
Credit: Elena Hermosa/Trocair

The retrial of former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt reopened on January 5, 2015, but was quickly suspended. [La Prensa; BBC] Charged with committing genocide and crimes against humanity against indigenous Ixil Maya of the Quiché region, the 88-year-old ex-army general is allegedly responsible for 15 massacres carried out against indigenous Mayans during his rule from 1982 to 1983, which resulted in 1,771 deaths, the displacement of 29,000, and the rape and torture of many others. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months]. While the court rejected Ríos Montt’s attorneys’ argued that he was too ill to participate, the defense ultimately prevailed in recusing one of the members of the three-judge panel, resulting in a suspension of the trial while a new judge is selected or an appellate court examines the recusal issue. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months] It is unclear how long this might take.

Ríos Montt’s previous conviction in May 2013, the first successful genocide prosecution of a former head of state in his home country, was annulled later that month due to procedural technicalities. [Huffington Post] Widely considered to be an historic ruling, the judgment’s annulment was criticized by some as a major setback. [Americas Society]

As the case draws increased attention and raises concerns about politically biased or corrupt judges, some fear this prosecution of Ríos Montt will end in a mistrial, if it ever begins. [Americas Quarterly]

The 36-Year Internal Armed Conflict in Guatemala

Guatemala was embroiled in internal armed conflict from 1960 to 1996, during which time the country’s military and paramilitary forces and police sought to suppress the insurrection being brought by guerrilla fighters and other leftists. [IJRC] Caught in the middle were the indigenous Maya, some of whom had initially supported the guerrillas with the hope that they would remedy the Maya’s economic and political marginalization. [Center for Justice and Accountability] By the time Ríos Montt came to power, however, indigenous communities had become the focus of the State’s counterinsurgency strategy. Applying the metaphorical tactic of “removing the water from the fish,” State forces sought to end the conflict by annihilating the guerrillas’ perceived supporters: the indigenous Maya. Open Society Justice Initiative, Judging a Dictator: The Trial of Guatemala’s Ríos Montt (2013) 7.

During the 36-year armed conflict, approximately 250,000 people were killed or went missing, and nearly half of all violations that were reported occurred during Ríos Montt reign. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months] Indeed, during his short time in power, approximately 70,000 indigenous Maya were either killed or disappeared and between 70 and 90 percent of the inhabitants of the Ixil region were exterminated. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months] In its report Guatemala: Memory of Silence, the Commission for Historical Clarification, a United Nations-mandated truth commission, attributed 93 percent of the atrocities inflicted to government forces. [Center for Justice and Accountability]

On December 29, 1996, the Guatemalan government reached a United Nations-facilitated agreement with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) to bring an official end to the armed conflict. The National Reconciliation Law “extinguish[ed] criminal liability for related common crimes committed in the armed conflict,” but did not absolve perpetrators of responsibility for “crimes which, under domestic law or the international treaties ratified or signed by Guatemala, are imprescriptible or are not subject to an extinction of criminal liability.” UN General Assembly and Security Council, The situation in Central America: Procedures for the establishment of a firm and lasting peace and progress in fashioning a region of peace, freedom, democracy and development, UN Docs. A/51/796 & S/1997/114, 29 December 1996 20.

History of the Case

In May 2013, Ríos Montt was found guilty of committing genocide and received an 80-year prison sentence for the crime by the First High-Risk Tribunal A court. [La Prensa] In a 3-2 decision, the Constitutional Court annulled the judgment due to procedural technicalities and ordered a new trial, invalidating everything that had occurred at trial after April 19, 2013. [Americas Society] The Constitutional Court did, however, rule against the decision of lower court Judge Carol Patricia Flores, who ordered that the case against Ríos Montt should return to the investigative phase of November 2011, when the former dictator had not yet been linked to the massacre of the Ixil Mayans. [Tico Times]

Rios Montt’s former head of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, had also been charged with committing genocide and crimes against humanity, but was acquitted in 2013. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months] The Constitutional Court’s annulment means that he could still be convicted. [Americas Society]

Groups from Guatemala and around the world called on the Constitutional Court to overturn its decision, maintaining that Ríos Montt could challenge the ruling through the normal appeals process. [Huffington Post] The civil parties to the case have also reportedly challenged the Constitutional Court’s decision before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months]

On the first day of retrial, Ríos Montt’s defense attorneys argued against the presence of one of the three presiding judges, Irma Jeannette Valdez, on the panel. Judge Valdez had written an academic thesis on the Guatemalan genocide and the criteria for command responsibility. After deliberation, the two other judges on the panel determined that Judge Valdez’s partiality could be questioned because she had expressed an opinion on a significant legal issue relevant to the proceedings. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months] Judge Valdez excused herself.

The appointment of a new judge could lead to further delays; because Ríos Montt has already challenged a number of judges, other appellate judges have refused to intervene, and there is a shortage of judges available to try such a case. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months]

Adding to the delay, the Constitutional Court is due to issue a parallel decision concerning whether a 1986 amnesty decree passed by former dictator General Mejía Víctores should prevent the prosecution of Ríos Montt. [International Justice Monitor: Eighteen Months; Tico Times] The amnesty decree granted immunity from prosecution for crimes committed during his and Ríos Montt’s rule. If the Constitutional Court upholds the amnesty decree, the trial against Ríos Montt will close. [Huffington Post]

Decided and Pending Cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has heard multiple cases concerning violations that took place during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala. The Court addressed the issue of forced disappearances. See, e.g., I/A Court H.R., Molina Theissen v. Guatemala. Merits. Judgment of 4 May 2004. Series C No. 106; Chitay Nech et al. v. Guatemala. Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of 25 May 2010. Series C No. 212. The Court examined some of the many massacres committed by military and paramilitary forces, as well. See, e.g., I/A Court H.R., “Las Dos Erres” Massacre v. Guatemala. Preliminary Objection, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of 24 November 2009. Series C No. 211; Río Negro Massacres v. Guatemala. Preliminary Objection, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of 4 September 2012. Series C No. 250; Myrna Mack Chang v. Guatemala. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of 25 November 2003. Series C No. 101. The Court also addressed allegation of torture. See, e.g., I/A Court H.R., Gudiel Álvarez et al. (Diario Militar) v. Guatemala. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of 20 November 2012. Series C No. 253; Plan de Sánchez Massacre v. Guatemala. Merits. Judgment of 29 April 2004. Series C No. 105. For further information on these cases and summaries of the Inter-American Court’s other decisions, visit the Inter-American Court of Human Rights Project website.

Responses of the International Community to the Ongoing Impunity in Guatemala

In addition to the above-mentioned judgments of the Inter-American Court, in May 2014 the Inter-American Commission issued a press release urging the State of Guatemala to respect its international obligations and its responsibility to combat impunity. [IACHR Press Release: IACHR Urges Guatemala] The Commission’s statement came after the Guatemalan Congress issued a non-binding resolution denying the occurrence of genocide in Guatemala and calling for “national reconciliation.” Resolution 3-2014 stated, in part:

Owing to the criminal prosecution known as ‘the trial of the century,’ the present legislation acknowledges that it is legally not viable that the elements that constitute the crimes mentioned could have happened in Guatemala, principally with regard to the existence in our homeland of a genocide during the internal armed conflict … This discussion (on genocide) transcends the courts and takes place in social media, sectors of opinion, towns, plazas, streets, and Guatemalan households, thus renewing the polarization between brothers, propagating opinions contrary to peace, and impeding ultimate reconciliation.

[La Jornada (Spanish) (unofficial translation by IJRC)]

According to the Inter-American Commission, the declaration “does not constitute a constructive step, in contrast with the efforts made by various State institutions to investigate and punish grave human rights violations and to fight against impunity.” [IACHR Press Release: IACHR Urges Guatemala] Victims added that the resolution was “offensive, racist and illegal,” and civil society groups criticized it as an interference with the judicial process. [La Jornada (Spanish); Huffington Post]

In September 2014, the Inter-American Commission also called on Guatemala to ensure transparency and the independence of members of the judiciary, in accordance with the dictates of international law. [IACHR Press Release: IACHR Reiterates Concern]

The United Nations Committee against Torture issued concluding observations on the 5th and 6th periodic reports of Guatemala in June 2013, only a month after the annulment of Ríos Montt’s conviction. The Committee noted that it was “gravely concerned about the impunity which exists for most human rights violations carried out during [the armed conflict].” Emphasizing that impunity is a violation of international human rights law, the Committee expressed concern over the trial of Ríos Montt, stressing that “high-ranking executive government officials [had] made statements to the effect that there was no genocide in Guatemala, which could have influenced the judiciary’s deliberations,” the Guatemalan army was reportedly “not fully cooperating” in the investigations, and individuals involved in the criminal proceedings were allegedly subjected to “attacks and threats.” Committee against Torture, Concluding observations on the combined fifth and sixth periodic reports of Guatemala, adopted by the Committee at its fiftieth session (6-31 May 2013), UN Doc. CAT/C/GTM/CO/5-6, 27-28 May 2013, 3.

For more information on the Inter-American system of human rights and international humanitarian law, see IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.