Rights Groups Urge Completion of Rios Montt Trial

NEW YORK—Four international legal and human rights groups are together urging all concerned to ensure that the current trial in Guatemala of former president Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity proceeds with due respect for judicial independence.

The four are: the Open Society Justice Initiative, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

The trial of Ríos Montt, a former general who ruled Guatemala from 1982-3, opened in Guatemala City on March 19. Together with Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, his former head of military intelligence, Rios Montt faces charges of genocide and other crimes arising from atrocities against members of the country’s Mayan Ixil population under his rule.

The four groups note with particular concern the decision on Thursday, April 18, by a first-instance judge, Carol Patricia Flores, to annul the trial court proceedings so far, which have included prosecution testimony from over 100 relatives and survivors of violence, as well as testimony from defense expert witnesses.

In announcing the annulment, Judge Flores cited a Constitutional Court ruling concerning the admissibility of evidence, although the trial court already admitted the evidence ordered admitted by the Constitutional Court.

Guatemala’s attorney-general Claudia Paz y Paz has said that Judge Flores’ annulment ruling is illegal.

This morning, Friday, April 19, the judge presiding over the Rios Montt trial, Judge Yazmin Barrios, also rejected as illegal the order to annul the proceedings. But she officially suspended the process pending a Constitutional Court review of the legality of the annulment ruling.

Paul Seils, Vice President of ICTJ said, “The decision by Judge Barrios is a courageous and legally correct response to this blatant attempt to subvert the legitimate pursuit of justice by the victims of horrendous crimes. The Constitutional Court must rule without delay on the legality of the order to annul the trial, and allow this historic trial to conclude as it should.”

The Justice Initiative, ICTJ and CEJIL also express their concern about President Otto Perez Molina’s public endorsement this week of a statement signed by several leading political figures and former government officials, which included the assertion that a finding of genocide in the case would endanger Guatemala’s peace process.

James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative, said: “It is imperative both for the rule of law in Guatemala and for lasting reconciliation that the legal process continues without inappropriate external pressure. By addressing its history, Guatemala will join other countries around the world that have sought justice and accountability for the gravest human rights abuses.”

Viviana Krsticevic, executive director of CEJIL, added: “Investigations and prosecutions play a critical role in helping societies come to terms with historic human rights abuses. This process can only strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala.”

The Rios Montt trial marks the first prosecution of a former head of state for genocide in a domestic court.