On the afternoon of Thursday, April 18, in an extraordinary turn of events, the genocide trial of Efraín Ríos Montt and José Rodríguez Sánchez was brought to a halt when Judge Carol Patricia Flores of a court of First Instance declared the proceedings null and invalid. Stunned prosecutors denounced the verdict and immediately began preparing to file several motions to reverse the decision. Judge Yassmin Barrios, president of the tribunal overseeing the genocide trial, announced the trial would go ahead on Friday morning despite the ruling. And by the close of the day, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz declared the ruling “illegal” and vowed to use every measure available to stop it.
The long, strange and confusing day began in the morning with a different unexpected development, when the entire defense team representing the two co-defendants managed to shut the trial down within several hours of its start by abandoning the courtroom en masse, leaving their clients sitting at the defense table without legal representation.
That dramatic gesture took place before a packed and expectant courtroom. There were more than one hundred representatives of the Ixil and other Mayan communities present – many of them members of the Association of Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), which is part of the prosecution team. Every day this week an increasing number of people arrived to observe what were believed to be the final days of the trial. Well-known Guatemalan human rights advocates such as Rigoberta Menchú, Frank La Rue, Aura Elena Farfán, Helen Mack and Patricia Yoj Popul have been joined by international observers including delegations from the National Lawyers Guild of the United States and the Center for Accountability and Justice, a group of Latin American jurists involved in high-level human rights prosecutions (from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Peru), foreign ambassadors, law professor Naomi Roht-Arriaza, international attorney Almudena Bernabeu, and many more.
Video of events on Day 20 from Skylight Pictures.
Families and friends of the accused were also present, including Zury Ríos Montt de Weller, the general’s daughter; Zuelma Paz de Rodríguez, wife of defendant Rodríguez Sánchez; and Ricardo Méndez Ruíz, leader of a right-wing organization called the Foundation Against Terrorism. Yesterday Víctor Manuel Argueta – a retired army officer who served as chief of the notorious Archivo military intelligence unit under Ríos Montt – made an appearance.
Unlike previous days, every defense attorney was present and accounted for when the three judges entered the room: Marco Antonio Cornejo, Danilo Rodriguez, Francisco Palomo, and Luis Alfonso González Marroquín for Ríos Montt, and Moisés Galindo and César Calderón for Rodríguez Sánchez.
Judge Yassmin Barrios, the tribunal’s presiding judge, began by asking about the results of the search for the witnesses proposed by the Ríos Montt defense team. The two previous days, the defense identified that they had been unable to locate many of their proposed witnesses, forcing the afternoon hearing to be suspended one day, and leading the defense to strike four of the remaining witnesses from their proposed list on the subsequent day. Judge Barrios notified the court that at least one person, Gonzalo Asturias Montenegro (former press secretary for the presidency during the Ríos Montt regime), could not be located and had not lived at the address given by defene attorney Cornejo for ten years.
Before the judge could continue with her inquiry into the witnesses, defense attorney Danilo Rodríguez asked for permission to speak. He then launched into a long and harsh accusation against the tribunal. He asserted that the court had violated the law by failing to abide by the April 3 ruling from the Constitutional Court, and that the trial should therefore be suspended. On April 3, the Constitutional Court ordered that documents and experts submitted by the defense be admitted into evidence. That ruling overturned the February 4 decision of Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, who oversaw the preliminary phase of the trial, to reject much of the defense’s evidence on the grounds that it was submitted improperly. At the start of the trial, with this defense challenge to the Gálvez decision still undecided and under review, Judge Barrios decided to provisionally accept all of the defense’s evidence.
Rodríguez, reading from what appeared to be a prepared statement and facing the audience and the cameras rather than the judges, lambasted the tribunal as having usurped powers belonging to another chamber. He asserted that it did not have the authority to incorporate the evidence and continue hearing the case without waiting for the Constitutional Court’s order to be formally resolved. According to Rodriguez, even though Judge Barrios issued a preliminary resolution in the defense’s favor, the judges should have instead stopped the trial after the April 3 Constitutional Court ruling and sent the case before a prior judge overseeing preliminary matters, Carol Patricia Flores, for her resolution of the same question. Rodriguez asked for a postponement of the case.
Defense attorney César Calderón expounded further on the tribunal’s failure to halt the proceeding while the motion regarding evidence was pending, yelling into the microphone. According to Calderón, the Constitutional Court’s order indicated that Judge Flores needed to receive the case file to issue a resolution, but the tribunal did not provide Judge Flores with the file. He insisted that a motion would be filed against Gálvez who had committed errors, and that the competent judge in the case now was Judge Flores. He screamed: “You cannot start a criminal trial with a motion pending; it’s against logic. You can’t have two judicial processes at same time. This is an aberration in the judicial system of Guatemala.” Calderón’s voice began to crack as he continued to shout furiously and demanded the trial be annulled: “You are provoking a tremendous mess!”
After a brief recess for the tribunal to consider the arguments, Judge Barrios denied the motion for the trial to be suspended, insisting that the tribunal had followed correct procedures in admitting the evidence and continuing the trial.
Calderón again railed against the tribunal, shouting that the judges were disobeying a decision emitted by the most important judicial body court in Guatemala, the Constitutional Court. Again he demanded a “definitive suspension.” After a brief consultation with her colleagues, Judge Barrios again rejected the request.
In response Calderón announced, “We do not want to be participants in this illegal debate. We exercise our right to peaceful resistance. We are abandoning the premises because this trial should not be allowed to continue.”
With that, all six lawyers rose and walked out of the chamber, leaving their two defendants behind. Families and supporters of the accused stood and applauded forcefully. Judge Barrios shouted over the din to stop the men, and called on the police and court officers present to prevent them from leaving. Whether or not they heard her in the melee was unclear, but no one moved to stop them.
The courtroom was buzzing with the shock of seeing the defense abandon the case. Judge Barrios asked for quiet and insisted that the accused had the right to legal representation. She urged defendants Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez to call their lawyers and request their return. “Defense lawyers must remain until a sentence is pronounced,” she said and declared that if the lawyers refused to participate, the court would appoint public defenders.
With that, the trial was adjourned.
The Court of the First Instance High-Risk A (Mayor Riesgo A) hearing before Judge Flores was scheduled to begin at 2 pm. Prosecutors and the defiant defense lawyers, having returned for the afternoon hearing, all took their places, and hundreds of people poured into a chamber designed to hold 100.
In a dramatic and unexpected decision, Judge Flores said the tribunal’s decision to continue the hearings after the April 3 Constitutional Court ruling was incorrect. She resolved that the genocide trial was “annulled” and that the process had to return to the stage it was at on November 23, 2011.
Many assumed that this would be a simple procedural hearing. Since the evidence in question had already been incorporated into the trial, Judge Flores could have recognized the tribunal’s compliance with the Constitutional Court’s order. Instead the hearing was a swirl of legal machinations.
As Judge Flores began reading her ruling, she made reference to many of the countless appeals and motions that have dogged the genocide case, in addition to the April 3 decision by the Constitutional Court. In 2011, defense lawyers had asked that Judge Flores be recused from the case against Rodríguez Sánchez, accusing her of being partial. Civil party CALDH had filed a successful motion objecting to the request for recusal on November 23, 2011, something Judge Flores brought up several times during her hour-long address.
The judge’s resolution stunned many in the courtroom. Edgar Pérez, representing victims group AJR, asked Flores directly, “How can you do this to the victims?” He reminded her that they had been waiting thirty years for justice, and that both the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights and the Guatemalan Constitution guaranteed the right to a speedy trial. The ruling left the victims in a state of “defenselessness and impunity.” Pérez asked that Flores withdraw her ruling.
Prosecutor Orlando López told the judge that she had “made a mockery of the victims, and a mockery of justice.” An ongoing judicial process could not be legally blocked. He pointed out that the ruling by the Constitutional Court did not in any way indicate that the case could be returned to an earlier phase and restarted, and said she had overreached in her interpretation of the court’s order.
When the defense lawyers began to speak, a group of dozens of Ixil women who had arrived at the courtroom together got up quietly and walked out.
The judge agreed that the situation was “lamentable” but said she had no choice but to suspend the genocide trial. “I am not denying access justice to victims and I am not mocking them. I am resolving what corresponded to me to decide.” In a veiled reference to Judge Gálvez, she blamed the decision to annul on the “ineptitude” of someone else, “someone who doesn’t know the law.” She asserted that was simply complying with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.
As the courtroom began to break up and people moved toward the door, Maryelena Bustamante, whose brother Emil was forcibly disappeared in 1982, began to scream, “Injustice! Ríos Montt is an assassin!” Court police moved around her to get her out of the courtroom and some of the defendants’ supporters chanted jokingly “Why not shoot her? Why not shoot her?” (¿Porque no la disparan?)
Several hours after the hearing, Guatemala’s Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz held a press conference and accused Judge Flores of issuing an “illegal ruling” by ordering the halt to the genocide trial. She said the Constitutional Court ruling of April 3 ordered the admission of evidence on behalf of the defense, not a stop to the proceedings. Paz y Paz said her office would act immediately to reverse the ruling.