The resumption of the genocide trial against former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt ended as confusingly as it began, in a theatrical first day of renewed proceedings on Monday. Following a three-judge panel’s 2-1 vote that determined that court president Irma Jeannette Valdéz was too biased to judge the case, the trial was suspended for an indefinite period.
On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt—the de-facto dictator of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983—was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity—specifically, the murder of 1771 Maya Ixil people, the forced displacement of 29,000 others, and the torture and rape that took place during the course of 15 massacres in the early 1980s centered around the municipality of Nebaj in Guatemala’s Ixil triangle. Yet that conviction was voided on May 20, 2013 by the Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC)—which ruled that Ríos Montt’s right to a defense had been violated by the expulsion of his combative lawyer, Francisco García Gudiel, on the first day of debate—and the trial was rescheduled for January 2015.
Valdéz, who was one of the three judges on Monday’s panel and president of Tribunal B de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court, which deals with high-profile cases involving crimes like corruption and genocide) rejected an amparo (defense appeal) questioning her impartiality for having written a postgraduate thesis on genocide in Guatemala. However, the other two judges on the panel, Sara Yoc Yoc and Maria Eugenia Castellanos, sided with the defense—effectively ending the trial the day it resumed.
Valdéz, whose 2004 thesis was titled “Criterios para una mejor aplicación del delito por genocidio” (Criteria for a better application of the crime of genocide) said, “It is outrageous to doubt my impartiality after several hearings in which I have made decisions on this case.” She added that her thesis was “a scholarly opinion, not legal.”
Monday’s trial had already been delayed twice earlier in the day, first because the original case files were not present in the courtroom, and then because Ríos Montt was not present.
Valdéz demanded that Ríos Montt appear, and the 88-year-old general was eventually wheeled into the courtroom on a stretcher, covered by a bed sheet that exposed only his black medical spectacles and tufts of graying hair. He was accompanied by his daughter, Zury Rios Sosa, who is considering a presidential run later this year.
Rios Montt’s medical team, led by his personal doctor, Mario Bolaños, complained that the trip to the courtroom put the general’s health at risk. According to Bolaños, Ríos Montt was suffering from hernias, exacerbated by an infection that could cause paralysis if he was moved. Bolaños, a former health minister, is also a former congressman from the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Republican Front) a party founded by Ríos Montt in 1989 that enjoyed its peak power at the turn of the millennium, with Alfonso Portillo as president and Ríos Montt as leader of Congress.
Throughout the spectacle, fellow defendant José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, Ríos Montt’s former military intelligence chief, sat patiently. Unlike Ríos Montt, Rodríguez Sánchez was found not guilty in the original trial. “I do not fear a new trial,” Rodríguez Sánchez said before proceedings began on Monday. “I’m here because I want to end this humiliation and this NGO circus.”
With a 2-1 vote (Valdéz issued the dissenting vote), the panel of judges upheld the defense’s amparo, ending the day’s events. Theoretically, the case now returns to the Sala Primera de Apelaciones de Mayor Riesgo (First Board of Appeal of the High Risk Court), presided over by Judge Anabella Cardona. However, there is also the unresolved issue of whether Ríos Montt qualifies for an amnesty. Since the voiding of the original trial in 2013, 61 appellate judges have excused themselves from this case. There is also a dwindling number of judges in the Riesgo courts that the defense has not lodged complaints against, making a speedy resolution unlikely.
Decree 8-86, issued by Ríos Montt’s successor, General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores—who also took power via a coup—blocks the prosecution of anyone accused of political and related crimes between March 23, 1982 and January 14 1986. These dates match the two dictators’ time in power. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) has repeatedly ruled that genocide and crimes against humanity cannot be amnestied, but this has not stopped Ríos Montt’s defense team from arguing that the general is exempt from trial.
Many of the Ixil who made the 186 mile trip to Guatemala City were forced to follow proceedings in the corridors outside the courtroom, which was packed with international observers, local and foreign media and dignitaries. Inside the court, Ríos Montt’s defense attorney, Jaime Hernández, suggested that the victims deserved to be killed. “The Ixil people killed were guerrillas,” said Hernández. “He [Ríos Montt] never tried to exterminate the Ixil group. If there were plans, it was against the guerrillas.”
The day ended with more questions than answers, due to the numerous stalling tactics employed by the defense. President Otto Pérez Molina—an interested observer, given his status as regional commander in Quiché during Ríos Montt’s reign—pleaded for calm, claiming that international observers—including some ambassadors from European countries—were harming the trial. “Let the judges and the courts do their job and don’t litigate in the media,” said Pérez Molina. “If you’re going to put ambassadors in the room of the hearing, that is indirect pressure against the judges.”
Where the trial goes from here—in an election year, with a defendant who still holds considerable political power and with a judiciary that is facing substantial threats to its independence—remains to be seen.