In a tense political climate, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court last week overturned the historic conviction of former Guatemalan strongman Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala for 17 months in what Guatemala’s truth commission recognized as the most brutal period of Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict.
Now the Constitutional Court has resuscitated long-dormant defense claims that a historic amnesty prevents any prosecution of Rios Montt or his co-accused, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.
Constitutional Court Ruling Creates a Legal “Labyrinth”
On May 10, a Guatemalan trial court convicted Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity for killings, forced displacement, rapes and torture committed under his rule. The trial court acquitted Rodriguez Sanchez, Rios Montt’s head of military intelligence, on the same day. One week later, the trial court issued a 718-page sentence in the case.
Then, on May 20, a divided Constitutional Court annulled the verdict and sent the trial backward. In its 3-2 judgment, the Constitutional Court rejected the outcome of the trial and left the entire future of the process uncertain—essentially on a technicality.
A representative of the civil party CALDH, working alongside the prosecutors to bring the case against Rios Montt, described the current situation as at an impasse. The civil party insists that, without further clarity from the Constitutional Court, it is impossible for a new trial to begin.
The Constitutional Court ordered the trial to pick up from the middle of the process. However, as the trial court had already issued its voluminous and reasoned sentence, all of the judges in that tribunal stepped aside, requiring the case to be transferred to a new court.
A new court might find it impossible to begin at a stage where it would have to rely on evidence already heard by another court. Yet, the new trial court would lack the authority to invalidate the earlier trial court’s proceedings. A new trial court would also lack the authority to begin afresh without clear guidance from the Constitutional Court, as initiating a brand new trial would contradict the Constitutional Court’s order that the case pick up from the middle.
There are only two so-called “high-risk” trial courts in Guatemala, so many anticipate that the case will be transferred to the other high-risk trial court (“B”). However, to make matters even more complicated, a three-judge high-risk appeals court must assign a new tribunal. Yet, two of the three judges from this appeals court are unavailable—one recused herself and the other is out of the country.
So the genocide case, with the trial phase deemed completed only weeks ago, now exists in a legal limbo—with the prior trial court having disqualified itself as a result of the Constitutional Court’s decision; no new trial court assigned; no appellate court that is composed that would even be able to order the case to be re-assigned; no clear deadline for when the case will be transferred; and no clarity about what will happen if and when the case is transferred to a new trial court.
Francisco Garcia Gudiel, Rios Montt’s defense attorney, insists that the Constitutional Court judgment is appropriate, and that he will be ready to defend Rios Montt whenever a new tribunal convenes to hear the case.
Constitutional Court Hears Amnesty Challenge
Now, in the midst of this tremendous uncertainty, the Constitutional Court is opening again the question of whether Rios Montt should be entitled to amnesty for crimes committed during his 1982-83 rule.
On Wednesday, May 29, the Constitutional Court held a public hearing on whether a 1986 amnesty should prevent Rios Montt’s prosecution. This hearing was in response to legal challenges filed long ago, but left unresolved by the Court.
In 1986, Rios Montt’s successor, General Humberto Mejia Victores, who had himself taken over rule of Guatemala in a military coup, issued a general amnesty for all crimes committed between March 1982 and January 1986, including the entire period of Rios Montt’s rule. However, during the peace accords, Guatemala enacted a law repealing all prior amnesty laws (Decree 133-97) and a National Reconciliation Law (Decree 145-96) which provided a limited amnesty, but excluded explicitly from any amnesty the crimes of genocide, torture, forced disappearance, and other international crimes.
The defense argues that the National Reconciliation Law may not apply retroactively. Both lower courts rejected the defense arguments and insisted that no amnesty could prevent the prosecution of these two former generals on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The Constitutional Court is due to issue a judgment within five days in response to the legal challenge just heard.
But there are other unresolved amnesty challenges. The Constitutional Court scheduled another public hearing next week, on Thursday, June 6, in response to a separate amnesty challenge lodged by Rios Montt’s defense attorneys. Francisco Garcia Gudiel, one of Rios Montt’s defense attorneys, says that on June 22 the Constitutional Court is due to hear yet another defense assertion that an amnesty prevents any prosecution.
Wednesday’s Constitutional Court hearing comes only weeks after Guatemala’s Secretary of Peace, Antonio Arenales Forno, represented to a skeptical United Nations Committee Against Torture that an amnesty prevents the prosecution of historic crimes in Guatemala. Claudio Grossman, President of the UN Committee Against Torture, and a former head of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, challenged Arenales Forno, recalling Guatemala’s long history of impunity concerning crimes committed during Guatemala’s armed conflict. “Guatemala is a signatory to the Inter-American Convention of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court has recognized the incompatibility of amnesty laws with certain war crimes,” he said.
Head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala Slated for Early Departure
Meanwhile, Guatemalan media reported on Wednesday (and the United Nations later confirmed) that Francisco Dall’Anese, the Commissioner of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (or CICIG, for its initials in Spanish), will step down in September. He had been expected to carry the post until September 2015, but will not renew his contract.
Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera remarked that the Guatemalan government complained to the United Nations, which appoints the CICIG Commissioner, about public statements CICIG made during the course of the Rios Montt genocide trial. Carrera, however, expressed continued support for the institution of the CICIG. (”Hemos dicho a la ONU que nos parece importante que el Comisionado sea siempre una persona que guarde equidad en los procesos. Lo importante es que continúe el fortalecimiento de la CICIG.”) Dall’Anese insists that his early departure is because he wants to spend more time with his family.