The on-again, off-again genocide trial of Guatemala’s former president, Efrain Rios Montt, appears to have been temporarily suspended after an incredible 24 hours in Guatemala City.
With the trial winding to a conclusion on Thursday, Judge Yassmin Barrios reprimanded the defense for not having their witnesses ready. The defense lawyers responded by walking out in protest, claiming that the legal proceedings should be returned to the pre-trial phase and that the trial should be annulled.
The defense’s complaint was backed up by the original hearing lawyer, Judge Carol Patricia Flores, who ruled that the entire trial had been illegal. On Thursday, Judge Flores moved to invalidate all proceedings since November 2012, meaning that months of oral arguments against Rios Montt would have to start over. Judge Flores cited a ruling by the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest legal body, that the defense’s evidence had not been admitted as the basis for her ruling. Evidence and experts had not been admitted during the initial pretrial hearing, but were entered later.
Prosecutors and Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz immediately sought to appeal this verdict, saying that it was impossible to restart a part of the trial that was already concluded. On Friday, Judge Barrios read a statement saying that Judge Flores’s orders to halt the trial on Thursday were themselves illegal.
“No one is superior to the law,” said Judge Barrios, causing spontaneous applause to break out in the courtroom. Judge Barrios then assigned public defenders to Rios Montt and his co-defendant, former intelligence chief José Rodríguez Sánchez, due to the sudden absence of their defense team.
Proceedings now return to the Constitutional Court to make a ruling on how and when the trial should continue. Judge Barrios was adamant that this was merely a temporary suspension of the case, and that once the verdict from the Constitutional Court is in, the trial will continue.
The courtroom drama of the last two days seems to highlight a troubled legal system that has seen former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo successfully evade extradition to the United States for years on charges of money laundering. Yet the trial of Rios Montt was a milestone for Guatemala: he is the first former head of state to stand trial for genocide. Weeks of emotional testimony of by Mayan Ixil victims of their suffering during Guatemala’s 36-year internal conflict reopened the wounds of a country struggling to comprehend what had happened in its rural highlands and beyond.
The defense has used two arguments to defend Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez—one being that genocide was not committed during Guatemala’s civil war. The defense says that not all of the over 200,000 people killed in the violence were Mayan Ixil, and that the government had ordered the army to consider all villagers to be “friends of the guerillas” and to treat them accordingly. Meanwhile, Otto Pérez Molina, the current Guatemalan president and former army area commander in Ixil at the time, has denied accusations that he was involved in the atrocities and claims that he helped villagers during natural disasters and flee violence.
Legal observers have quickly refuted the argument that genocide did not occur in Guatemala. Over 400 massacres took place during the conflict. The Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado (Archbishop’s office of human rights—ODHAG) has attributed over 90 percent of these massacres to the Guatemalan army and paramilitaries. Two days after the publication of the ODHAG Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (Recovery of Historical Memory—REMHI) report in 1998, one of its authors, Monsignor Juan José Gerardi, was bludgeoned to death in the garage of his home in Guatemala City and three army officers were convicted of his murder.
The defense’s second argument, that Rios Montt was not present during the massacres and did not order the atrocities to be committed, is refuted by Ríos Montt himself in interviews during his 1982-1983 rule that show him rhetorically asking, “If I cannot rule the army, how can I rule?”
With many international human rights observers at proceedings, Guatemala’s recent transition to democracy is also on trial. Four legal and human rights groups released a statement that implored the trial to continue to completion on Friday.
“The decision by Judge Barrios is a courageous and legally correct response to this blatant attempt to subvert the legitimate pursuit of justice by the victims of horrendous crimes,” said Paul Seils, the vice president of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). “The Constitutional Court must rule on the legality of the order to annul the trial, and allow this historic trial to conclude as it should.”
Precisely how the trial will continue remains to be seen. There are many appeal loopholes available to those with the means to employ lawyers that can take advantage of them. The decisions made by various judges only increase those opportunities to appeal. Rios Montt will remain under house arrest and Rodríguez will stay at a military hospital until the conclusion of the trial—but when that will be seems to change on an hourly basis.