Guatemalan court hits rewind button on Rios Montt's genocide conviction

Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned former dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt's genocide conviction – seen as a landmark human rights ruling – and called for a re-do of closing arguments.

Moises Castilo/AP
Guatemala's former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt sits in the courtroom before the judge reads the verdict during his genocide trial in Guatemala City, May 10.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

In a three-to-two ruling Monday night, Guatemala's Constitutional Court overturned Efrain Rios Montt's guilty verdict and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez's not guilty verdict and returned the trial to April 19.

 While the dust is still settling, April 19 would mean that witness and expert witness testimony will not need to be re-admitted. The court will be at the point at which it will be preparing to hear closing arguments.

Obviously, the ruling is good news for Rios Montt, but it is bad news for Rodriguez Sanchez, who is in jeopardy again. It's also bad news for the survivors who worked so very hard to secure the guilty verdict.

Now the ruling could be a sign of corruption and impunity. That would obviously be bad. Mauro Rodrigo Chacón and Gloria Porras were the two judges who ruled against overturning the verdict. Chacón represents the University of San Carlos and Porras was appointed during the Colom administration. The court's reversal comes following weeks of escalating attacks in the press from a powerful economic group, veterans' groups, and other right-wing groups.

Or it could be a sign that the Constitutional Court is doing its job and making sure that all parties adhere to established legal practices. That would be good as it doesn't help if justice cuts corners.

Here's what I wrote on Al Jazeera last week:

First, the prosecution still has to secure the final verdict. The trial itself has been full of intrigue, with two different judges claiming they should be overseeing the trial. Pre-trial judge Patricia Carol Flores, who was responsible for evidentiary and other matters of the case, held a hearing on the morning of Friday's verdict during which she tried to annul the trial, once again, and send it back to November 2011.

The Constitutional Court (CC) already ruled that Flores had overstepped her authority and had interpreted its ruling too broadly. It seems the CC only wanted her to incorporate new evidence that previously had been excluded and then send the case back to Judge Barrios. However, Flores' latest decision to re-annul the trial remains pending.

Following Friday afternoon's verdict, Rios Montt's attorney argued that the defence had already lodged four constitutional challenges and eight amparos which had not yet been ruled upon. Those legal challenges could threaten the conviction. Guatemalan lawyers have a history of using excessive, often frivolous, legal challenges to delay or deny justice so it is possible that all are resolved in favour of the prosecution. In this trial alone, the defence lodged over 100 legal challenges. 

Judge Barrios and her two colleagues must have decided that the best strategy to reach a verdict was to push the trial through to the end without waiting to resolve all the outstanding legal challenges rather than let the trial get bogged down. 

If Judge Barrios and the other two judges remain in charge of the case and all that needs to be re-argued are closing arguments, the damage is minimal. If the CC determined that the trial court should not have proceeded when it did and it is now returning the case to the point in time at which it should have been stopped, April 19, that is justice in motion. That is a CC that takes its role seriously. However, the ruling might have gone beyond that.

As of tonight, though, the ruling's motivations and implications are not necessarily clear.

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