This Tuesday, March 19, sees the scheduled start date for the oral phase of the trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez. They are accused of being the intellectual authors of the assassination of 1,771 indigenous Mayans of Ixil ethnicity in the Quiche Department, the forced displacement of 29,000, and sexual violations and torture, in massacres and violations perpetrated by the Guatemalan military during Rios Montt’s 17-month rule between 1982 and 1983.
The trial is due to commence at 8:30 am local time at the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia). It will be held before a three-judge panel of the First High-Risk Tribunal A (Tribunal Primero A de Mayor Riesgo). Judge Yazmin Barrios, the President of the High-Risk Tribunal, will be the chief judge on the panel, along with Judges Patricia Bustamante and Pablo Xitumul.
The trial is scheduled to last at least 6 weeks.
The trial date is confirmed for Tuesday, March 19, but had been uncertain, and changed, in recent weeks. On February 7, the trial date was initially set for August 14, only to be advanced from August to March 19 two weeks later, on February 20. Further, on Saturday, March 9, it was widely reported that an appellate court suspended the start date of the trial. On March 11, the civil parties clarified that the trial date remained unchanged from March 19, and that the appellate court had suspended only a separate February 4 decision by Judge Angel Galvez, the judge overseeing a preliminary phase of the trial.
Also, on March 12, the Constitutional Court resolved a long-pending amparo appeal filed by the defense concerning the applicability of a 1986 amnesty issued by General Mejia Victores, Rios Montt’s successor as de facto president. The Constitutional Court ruled that the amparo was unfounded.
This historic trial results from complaints made more than a decade ago in 2000 and 2001. Various factors impeded or delayed the process for nearly a decade, a period in which there were virtually no prosecutions initiated in connection with the internal armed conflict, despite thousands of legal complaints pending or filed.
The trial has advanced in the last two years, and in particular in the last year after Rios Montt stepped down from Congress and lost his legal immunity from prosecution. In January 2011, Judge Patricia Flores, a trial court judge overseeing some of the preliminary matters in the case, ordered Rodriguez Sanchez to prison pending the prosecution. Rios Montt was a sitting legislator at this time, but when his term ended in January 2012, he also was formally accused by Judge Flores and placed under house arrest.
In the last year, the defense filed scores of amparo challenges which delayed further steps in the trial. With some of the amparo challenges still outstanding—including the aforementioned appeal to the Constitutional Court with regard to the 1986 Mejia Victores amnesty—Judge Galvez determined on January 28 that there is a prima facie case sufficient to justify a trial and ordered that a trial date be set.
On February 4, Judge Galvez ruled on the admissibility of evidence for the parties. This February 4 decision accepted all of the prosecution witnesses, experts and documentary evidence, and denied the defense various of their proposed experts, reports and documents on the ground that they were submitted out of time or in violation of certain procedural obligations. The defense challenged the rejection of some of their proposed experts and evidence, and on March 9, an appellate court granted a provisional amparo on the issue of the admissibility of the proposed defense witnesses, experts and evidence. This issue remains unresolved.
The defense continues to state that the trial cannot start on Tuesday, and that they intend to challenge the opening of the oral phase.
President Otto Perez Molina also spoke about the upcoming trial on March 13, after having remained silent on various aspects of it for months. He stated: “In Guatemala, there was no genocide,” and that he “personally never received a document to go to massacre or kill a population.”