Guatemala genocide trial remains at standstill while courts consider legal challenges

The Guatemalan trial of former de facto head of state Rios Montt and his then head of military intelligence Rodriguez Sanchez remains at a standstill while various legal challenges wind their way through the Guatemalan courts.

Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez are being prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity for their actions during Rios Montt’s 17-month rule in 1982 and 1983. However, in a bewildering turn of events, their trial was abruptly halted last Thursday, despite imminent closing arguments, when a judge of a first-instance court ordered the trial annulled and the proceedings reverted 17 months, a decision rejected by the trial court as illegal.

After issuing various rulings on Tuesday, the Constitutional Court remained eerily silent on Wednesday—issuing no new rulings, and leaving unresolved the question of the legality of the trial’s annulment. Guatemalan law requires that a trial be completely suspended if any delay lasts longer than ten days, though few expect that to happen here.

Despite the lack of action by the Constitutional Court on Wednesday, a Guatemalan appeals court (Sala Cuarta de Apelaciones) did unexpectedly hear various related legal challenges in two consecutive hearings. In Guatemala, the appeals court normally functions as the court of first instance for responding to amparos. Given that the hearings concerned legal challenges which are, in part, pending also before the Constitutional Court, the significance of any appeals court decisions may be minimal, according to some media speculation.

Wednesday’s hearings raised a barrage of procedural challenges—with the defense seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the pre-trial proceedings, in order to lend support to its argument that these proceedings were so defective that that entire trial should be rejected.

The prosecution confronted these allegations one-by-one—and also accused the defense of an abusive use of legal challenges (amparos) to undermine the ability of victims to seek justice.

The President of the Court of Appeals, Judge Sonia Judith Alvarado López, presided over Wednesday’s hearings concerning four legal challenges (amparos). Rios Montt was not present, but was represented by attorney Danilo Rodriguez.  Defense attorneys Moises Galindo and César Calderón were also present. Defense attorney Marco Antonio Cornejo excused himself from the defense table as his name did not figure on court documents.

Prosecutors Orlando Lopez and Carla Isidra Valenzuela represented the Public Ministry, and Edgar Perez (AJR), Juan Francisco Soto (CALDH), and Francisco Martin Vivar (FAMDEGUA) represented the civil parties.

First, the defendants – again and in a different forum – challenged the February 4 resolution of Judge Miguel Angel Galvez to reject as inadmissible some of the proposed defense evidence. On April 3, the Constitutional Court partially rejected Judge Galvez’ decision, ordering that some of the proposed defense evidence should be admitted.

Among other things, the defendants had sought to include as evidence some information held by the Ministry of Defense. Judge Galvez had assessed that the specific requests would have required an investigation, and that Guatemala’s code of criminal procedure thus required the defense to have sought this evidence earlier.

Here again, in Wednesday’s appeals court hearings, the defense argued that Judge Galvez’s actions violated their right to due process and a proper defense. They argued that they were merely seeking that Judge Galvez order the Ministry of Defense to release certain documents, and not initiate an investigation.

The prosecution, for its part, argued that the legal challenge is irrelevant as the trial court accepted the defense’s evidence, in its entirety, despite Judge Galvez’ ruling, in light of the pending legal challenges. The prosecution also argued that Judge Galvez’ decision was well-founded and that the defense was abusing the use of the amparo for legal challenges.

Wednesday’s hearings also highlighted the elephant in the room: the disputed April 18 order to annul the proceedings. The prosecution and civil parties insisted on Wednesday that the Guatemalan criminal code prohibits the regression of a criminal process to an earlier, and already concluded, stage. They further reiterated that this would violate the rights of the victims—and that “justice cannot be stopped” (La justicia no se puede parar).

However, the defense attorneys argued that, because of Judge Galvez’ decision, the intermediate phase had not properly concluded, and that there was thus a permissible exception that allows that the court vacate the trial.

Second, the defendants challenged various other pre-trial issues concerning the opening of the oral phase of the trial (auto de apertura a juicio) on January 28. Among other things, they raised challenges concerning jurisdiction; the charges; the justification provided for his decision to move forward with the trial; and the amount of time that Judge Galvez took to advance the proceedings to the trial phase.

The defense asserted that Judge Galvez improperly asserted jurisdiction at the intermediate pre-trial stage. The Constitutional Court affirmed on December 13, 2012 that Judge Carol Patricia Flores, and not Judge Galvez, was the proper authority to oversee the pre-trial proceedings, in its revocation of a November 2011 order for her recusal. So the defense asserted here that Judge Galvez’ actions subsequent to this Constitutional Court decision were improper.

The prosecution noted that Judge Galvez had not received official notification of the Constitutional Court decision at the time he exercised jurisdiction.

The defense argued the semantics of the criminal charges as well. Article 378 of the Guatemalan Criminal Code prohibits “crimes against the duties of humanity” (“delitos contra los deberes de humanidad”). The defense argued that Judge Galvez’ charge of Rios Montt with “deberes contra la humanidad” was insufficiently exact, in violation of the principle of legality.

The prosecution sustained that the charges in this case must be read within the international context, and that Judge Galvez was applying the legislative intent of the Guatemalan code to ensure that Guatemala complied with its international obligations.

The defense also alleged that Judge Galvez violated Rodriguez Sanchez’ due process rights when it presented a 200-minute explanation to Rios Montt about his decision, but neglected to offer the same reasoning for his co-accused.

As a result of the unanticipated appeals court hearings, both the Public Ministry and the civil party CALDH cancelled their previously scheduled press conferences. Press and observers have struggled to keep pace with the developments of recent days.

The media arrived en masse at the office of CALDH for the scheduled press conference on Wednesday morning, only to be initially shuttled to the small courtroom usually reserved for appeals court hearings, and then moved to the Supreme Court’s courtroom due to the large number in the audience.

Since the recent and abrupt temporary suspension of the trial, international groups have continued to issue public statements. Yesterday, Nobel Women’s Initiative announced that Nobel Peace laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jose Ramos Horta, Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú, have called for a legitimate, independent and transparent judicial process in Guatemala. Two international legal networks, the National Lawyers Guild International Committee and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, issued public statements this week urging the Constitutional Court to allow the conclusion of the trial and guarantee victims the right to justice.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes, Stephen Rapp, visited Guatemala to lend his support to the ongoing genocide trial.

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.