Uncertainty looms as judge suspends genocide trial of former Guatemala dictator

Judge Carol Patricia Flores ruled the legal process in the contentious trial of former Gen. Rios Montt be set back to November 2011, essentially nullifying all actions taken in the case since that date.

Luis Soto/AP
Guatemala's former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt sits in the courtroom as the judge orders the suspension of the trail against him and fellow General Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, on charges of genocide in Guatemala City, Thursday.

Uncertainty loomed in Guatemala early Friday morning as hundreds of indigenous Ixils made their way into the Supreme Court to demand justice.

In an unprecedented turn of events, a judge who was recently reinstated to the case of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt ordered the suspension of the trial late Thursday, heightening tensions around already contentious legal proceedings that have divided Guatemalans. Her move in effect forces the trial to start over.

The 86-year-old general is the first strongman in Latin America to be tried on genocide charges, brought for his alleged role in the torture and disappearances of more than 1,700 indigenous Guatemalans between 1982-1983.

Attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz immediately deemed the judge's actions illegal and vowed to continue to push for justice and act according to the rule of law.

“The judge committed an illegality when [she] failed to follow a direct order from the Constitutional Court,” says Ms. Paz in an exclusive interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “But we have been ordered to convene in court and it is our duty to act according to law and justice." 

Judge Carol Patricia Flores ruled the legal process be set back to November 2011, before the general was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. Ms. Flores said she was following a directive from the Constitutional Court, and that all actions taken in the case since she was asked to step down in February 2012 were null. 

“I am not acting out of my own persuasion. I am acting in accordance with what top justices have asked me to do,” Judge Flores said.

According to documents read at the hearing, however, the Constitutional Court ordered Flores to review and readmit the evidence previously deemed inadmissible, then return the file to the sentencing court – in less than 24 hours – to resume the trial. The three-justice panel, presided over by Judge Yasmin Barrios, was expected to hear closing arguments before the week’s end.

Rios Montt's violent tenure

Mr. Ríos Montt took power in a coup and ruled Guatemala between 1982-1983, which became one of the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war. More than 200,000 people – mostly indigenous Mayans – were killed before the UN brokered peace accords.

Recently, a political push had come from conservative sectors of Guatemalan society, including President Otto Perez Molina, to stop the trial.  They deny genocide took place during the civil war. (Why is the trial controversial? Read our report about how both sides view its potential impact.)

Blowback

The attorney general’s office alleges Ríos Montt oversaw the torture, rape, and forced disappearances of 1,771 indigenous Ixils in 15 massacres when he was de facto head of state. And it seems she has the support of the international community.

“What we’re seeing here is that the victims’ rights to swift justice are being violated,” says Alberto Brunori, representative of the United Nations Office for Human Rights.

Overnight, dozens of indigenous Ixils lit candles in a vigil outside the Supreme Court building where the trial had been ongoing since March 19. They traveled by bus from the department of Quiche, 150 miles north of the capital.

Anita Isaacs, a political science professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, says the hardest moment was coming out of the courtroom.

“The hope for justice, for Guatemalan Mayans being treated with the same dignity and respect as other Guatemalan citizens,” she says, “was snatched right out of their hands.”

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