Constitutional Court issues ruling that could lead to the resumption of Guatemala genocide trial

On Thursday, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling that could lead to the resumption of the trial of former de facto head of state Rios Montt and his then head of military intelligence for genocide and crimes against humanity. The new Constitutional Court ruling compels a lower court to interpret—“exactly”—an earlier Constitutional Court decision.

Some observers contend that the lower court judge had acted beyond her authority in a manner that interrupted the trial, and that Thursday’s decision compels a reversal of the lower court judge’s actions and the continuation of the trial.

The criminal trial has been stalled for one week following the intervention of Judge Carol Patricia Flores, a first-instance judge overseeing pre-trial matters. On April 18, Judge Flores ordered the trial annulled and the proceedings reverted 17 months, a decision quickly rejected by the trial court as illegal. At the time of Judge Flores’ intervention, the trial court had been very close to hearing closing arguments and issuing a sentence. The trial court subsequently suspended proceedings pending constitutional review of outstanding issues.

Judge Flores was only recently reincorporated into the case after the Constitutional Court voided a prior order compelling her recusal. She replaced Judge Miguel Angel Galvez in overseeing decisions concerning evidentiary and other pre-trial matters; Judge Galvez had earlier supplanted Judge Flores when a court ordered her recusal in November 2011.

This week the Constitutional Court has issued various decisions, providing some incomplete guidance on various outstanding procedural and substantive issues. One of the major outstanding issues is the appropriate judicial remedy to rectify Judge Galvez’ February 4 decision to exclude as inadmissible certain proposed defense evidence, before the March 19 start of the trial.

On February 4, Judge Galvez rejected, on procedural grounds, certain proposed defense witnesses, experts and documents. On April 3, the Constitutional Court found that the exclusion of some of this evidence was improper and violated the defendants’ right to a proper defense; the Court reaffirmed this decision on Tuesday, April 23. On the same day, the Constitutional Court instructed the trial court to provide the case file to Judge Flores within two hours in order for her to execute the Constitutional Court’s orders.

Earlier this week, Judge Flores sought guidance from the Constitutional Court about the permissible interpretations of the Constitutional Court’s April 3 and 23 orders. She asserted that the orders generated “doubt and uncertainty” (duda e incertidumbre) that begged the Constitutional Court’s guidance.

Among other things, Judge Flores questioned the Constitutional Court regarding how to execute the Court’s orders to admit certain evidence when the process would not yet be at the stage of determining the admissibility of evidence, if her decision to reject all actions in the case subsequent to her recusal stands. (“… atendiendo que, con fecha 18 de abril 2013, se resolvió dejar sin efecto lo actuado a partir del 23 de noviembre de dos mil once… el proceso de marras no se encuentra en ese momento procesal [de admitir las pruebas], por lo que, con el respeto debido planteo consulta, a efecto que ese Honorable Tribunal Constitucional se pronuncie al respecto a efecto que se disuelva esa duda e incertidumbre”.)

Indeed, if Judge Flores’ order to revert the case back to November 2011 is permitted to stand, the case regresses to a stage at which Rios Montt is not yet even a defendant. (In November 2011, he was a sitting member of Congress benefiting from congressional immunity.)

In Thursday’s decision, the Court seemed to compel a narrow interpretation of its prior orders—and an interpretation that would not permit the regression of the case to November 2011, as Judge Flores attempted to do with her April 18 ruling.

In its one-paragraph ruling on Thursday, the Constitutional Court ordered Judge Flores to comply strictly with its April 3 judgment. The Court stated that Judge Flores “should execute exactly that which was decided by the [Constitutional] Court in its April 3, 2013 decision,” within the clearly determined deadlines (“… dicha funcionaria judicial deberá dar exacto cumplimiento a lo decidido por esta Corte en el auto de tres de abril de dos mil trece, que confirmó el otorgamiento del amparo provisional solicitado, observando para ello los plazos determinados … ”).

The April 3 Constitutional Court ruling instructed the pre-trial judge to emit a decision within 48 hours admitting certain previously excluded defense evidence, and to then return the file within 24 hours to the trial court. The Court, within the April 3 ruling, affirmed that the introduction of evidence should not compromise or affect the progression of the trial—neither delaying the start of the process nor requiring a reversion to earlier stages, a “situation that would be illegal” (retrotraerlo a etapas ya desarrolladas….sería illegal).

In a statement to the press Thursday afternoon, attorney Edgar Pérez, representing the Justice and Reconciliation Association (Asociación Justicia y Reconciliación), a civil party in the case, praised the resolution as an action benefitting the victims in their search for justice. (“La Corte Constitucional está respaldando la acción por la justicia de las victimas.”)

However, some media speculated that Judge Flores’ April 18 decision to annul the trial remained valid until addressed directly by the court. The Constitutional Court refused to decide this issue in its earlier resolutions—rejecting on purely procedural grounds a complaint (ocurso en queja) filed by civil party CALDH, finding that the complaint was not filed in the proper venue. The Public Ministry has a similar legal challenge to the annulment ruling that remains pending, after being denied by the Appeals Court. Thursday’s ruling explicitly does not make a statement on Judge Flores’ order to annul the trial and all other developments subsequent to November 2011.

El Faro reports that Martin Guzman, the secretary of the Constitutional Court, stated that the Constitutional Court “never ordered the suspension of the trial” (nunca ordenó suspender el debate publico), and indeed that this decision by Judge Flores was “surprising”. Judge Flores has said, as a justification for the annulment, that she was responding only to orders of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court.

According to El Faro, Guzman stated that the Court does not have a position on the suspension of the trial and has “not made any pronouncement about the necessity of returning to the intermediate [or pre-trial] phase.”

Plaza Publica also reports that Guzman stated that the Constitutional Court received only a “fax and not a formal request” (no una solicitud formal) from the trial court judge, seeking constitutional review of Judge Flores’ decision on guidance on when the trial could re-start.

Emi MacLean, Legal Officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, and students of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law contributed to the research and writing of this blog.