By Ruth Green
On 10 May it looked as if history had finally been made when former Guatemalan dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt became the first person ever to be convicted of genocide in a domestic court.
86-year-old Ríos Montt, who came to power in Guatemala following a coup on 23 March 1982, stood accused of implementing a counter-insurgency policy that massacred more than 1,700 and displaced thousands of other members of indigenous group the Ixil Maya in 1982.
The three-judge panel ruled that Ríos Montt should be sentenced to 80 years in prison, which includes 50 years for genocide, with an additional 30 years added to his sentence for crimes against humanity.
The verdict in itself was of unparalleled historic significance for Guatemala, Central America and human rights as a whole. However, despite the damning 718-page judgment released on 17 May, just ten days later the country’s Constitutional Court dramatically overturned the ruling, effectively resetting the trial back to 19 April.
‘The impunity that has continued has been harmful to the population and the victims, all of whom have lost faith in justice [in Guatemala],'
Director of the Central America division of the International Commission of Jurists
Prior to the decision, Ramón Cadena, Director of the Central America division of the International Commission of Jurists, vocally denounced the prospect that the ruling could be overturned.
‘It would be extremely negative for Guatemala if they annul the sentence,’ he said in a statement to the press. ‘The impunity that has continued has been harmful to the population and the victims, all of whom have lost faith in justice [in Guatemala].’
The case has polarised Guatemalan society, so much so that after the verdict was handed down, the President of Guatemala’s Bar Association, Luis Reyes, called for all parties involved in the trial to show restraint in expressing their views in order to not divide public opinion further on the case.
‘We are asking for the public to remain patient and calm as we wait for the different stages of the trial to proceed,’ he told a reporter during an interview with Guatemalan radio station Emisoras Unidas. ‘We still have to wait for the decision from the Constitutional Court.’
He added that the Bar Association would continue to maintain an impartial standpoint in relation to the case.
However, the Constitutional Court’s decision has come as little surprise in light of the courtroom antics leading up to the ruling, which have gone far beyond even the most far-fetched of legal dramas.
The trial itself has been marred in controversy since day one when Ríos Montt's lead defence lawyer Francisco García Gudiel was expelled from the courtroom after he challenged the authority of the tribunal. Since then, both lawyers and witnesses for the defence have failed to turn up to court on several occasions, causing considerable delays.
On 18 April, tensions escalated further when Ríos Montt’s lawyers walked out of the trial in protest at what they described as ‘illegal debate’. Later that day the pre-trial judge in charge of the case, Judge Carol Patricia Flores, suspended the trial and ordered that the legal process to be set back to November 2011 before Ríos Montt had even been charged with war crimes, claiming that she was following a directive from both the country’s Constitutional Court and Supreme Court.
The President of the tribunal, Judge Jazmin Barrios, responded by calling on the Constitutional Court to declare Flores' order ‘illegal’.
Two days later, the Constitutional Court ruled that the order was illegal, but the trial was still put on hold while it reviewed 12 outstanding legal challenges related to the case. Proceedings finally resumed on 30 April and García Gudiel was reinstated as Ríos Montt’s defence counsel. Perhaps even more controversially, Flores was also reinstated, despite accusations of bias.
In spite of the delays and the former dictator’s insistence of his innocence throughout the trial, on 10 May, the President of the tribunal, Judge Barrios, ruled that the tribunal had found him guilty, stating unequivocally: ‘We are completely convinced of the intent to destroy the Ixil ethnic group.’
However, Rios Montt’s intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, was found not guilty on all charges.
Although many, including Guatemalan Ambassador to the US Francisco Villagrán de León, were quick to hail the verdict as a ‘historic milestone’ for Guatemala, human rights and Guatemala’s judiciary, now it appears the case is far from over.
According to a report in independent Guatemalan newspaper El Periódico, a number of challenges affected the Constitutional Court’s ability to make a final decision on the judgment and caused it to question the validity of the verdict , including – perhaps unsurprisingly given the trajectory of the case so far – internal divisions between the judges.
The latest ruling by the three-to-two panel of constitutional judges has urged proceedings to revert back to 19 April when the trial resumed after disruptions caused by Ríos Montt’s defence and the decision by Judge Flores to suspend the trial.
So it is 'Groundhog Day' once again in Guatemala as all stages of the trial after 19 April, including witness testimony, will be repeated and Ríos Montt continues to be held under house arrest.
Ruth Green is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org