Embattled trial re-convenes and struggles toward its conclusion

Tuesday’s session of the trial of former de facto leader Efrain Rios Montt and his head of military intelligence Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez was striking in that it happened at all.

After nearly two weeks of serious political and legal challenges amid a suspended trial, hundreds of observers filed into the courtroom to see whether the world’s first genocide trial for a former head of state to occur in the nation where the crimes are alleged to have occurred would advance towards a verdict.

The hearing was brief—just over two hours—and anti-climactic. As expected, the court was absorbed in the practicalities of restarting the trial, and could attend only to the rulings necessary to address decisions from other courts and the restructuring of the defense teams.

The trial opened with the conspicuous absence of defense counsel.  Of the defense lawyers involved in the trial to date, only Francisco Garcia Gudiel appeared at the table Tuesday morning.  Rios Montt’s other attorneys—Danilo Rodriguez and Marco Antonio Cornejo—were absent, as were Rodriquez Sanchez’ attorneys, Cesar Calderon, Moises Galindo and Francisco Palomo.

However, two public defenders appeared in court. Judge Barrios stated that since the defense lawyers had ‘abandoned’ their defendants, the court had exercised its right to appoint public defenders. For Rios Montt, the Public Defenders’ Office (Defensa Publica Penal) supplied Lidia Arevalo to serve as his counsel, and for Rodriguez Sanchez, Otto Haroldo Ramirez.

Following a ruling of the Constitutional Court, Judge Barrios reincorporated Francisco Garcia Gudiel as part of Rios Montt’s defense team. Garcia Gudiel had appeared as Rios Montt’s sole defense counsel on the opening day of the trial, after Rios Montt substituted him for his existing defense team that morning. The tribunal expelled Garcia Gudiel later that day following altercations with the court. Judge Barrios had appointed Cesar Calderon, Rodriguez Sanchez’ attorney, as Rios Montt’s substitute counsel following Garcia Gudiel’s expulsion. However, on appeal, the Constitutional Court found that Rios Montt’s rights had been violated when he was left without counsel for several hours on the afternoon of March 19 and the morning of March 20.

On Tuesday, Judge Barrios complied with the order to reinstate Garcia Gudiel. Additionally, to comply with the order, Judge Barrios excluded four witness statements that occurred during the contested period of Garcia Gudiel’s absence.

After his reinstatement, Garcia Gudiel voiced his objection to the entire proceedings, and asked the court to dismiss all the evidence submitted subsequent to his March 19 expulsion:  “Due process requires that Rios Montt have his chosen lawyer (de confienza) so you must reject everything that has happened without me [here].”

Furthermore, he argued, Judge Carol Patricia Flores’ April 18decision to annul the trial and revert the proceedings 17 months was still binding, and the case should be returned to its status as of November 23, 2011. Judge Flores oversees the pre-trial stage of the proceedings; Judge Barrios previously asserted that Judge Flores’ ruling was illegal and challenges remain pending before various courts.

After deliberating, the judges rejected Garcia Gudiel’s requests.  Judge Barrios explained that the court must follow the rulings of the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land. She insisted that the Constitutional Court had made clear in its April 3 ruling that stopping the trial would be “illegal.” Judge Barrios further noted that Rios Montt had trusted counsel (de confianza) in lawyer Cornejo, who represented him following Garcia Gudiel’s departure.

Court-appointed public defender Lidia Arevalo requested that she be excused from service.  The right to defense was “a pillar of the Constitution,” she argued, and Rios Montt had representation by his own trusted lawyers. Arevalo stated that on April 23, Rios Montt assured her that he had money, resources and lawyers of his own.  She offered the court a signed statement from Rios Montt to that effect. After brief deliberations, the court accepted Arevelo’s request and she was dismissed.

Defendant Rodriguez Sanchez then addressed the court and said that he, too, wanted a lawyer “de confianza,” rather than his court-appointed public defender, Otto Ramirez. Judge Barrios responded that the court had given him ample opportunity to contact his defense attorneys following their abrupt and unauthorized departure.

Judge Barrios remarked further that, despite several public appeals to his defense attorneys, they had failed to resume their duties in the courtroom of the trial court. (Calderon and Galindo have acted as Rodriguez Sanchez’ counsel in other hearings during the trial’s suspension.  They have nonetheless boycotted Judge Barrios’ courtroom since April 18.)

Ramirez, Rodriguez Sanchez’ assigned public defender, also asked the court to remove him from the defense. He told the court that he had met with the defendant on April 23—“but he did not accept me; I have his written statement.” Ramirez argued that the court should give Rodriguez Sanchez time to secure an attorney of his choosing, rather than force a public defender on a resistant defendant.

Prosecutor Orlando Lopez objected, pointing out that when Rodriguez Sanchez’ lawyers had abandoned the proceedings on April 18, the court had given the defendant the opportunity to contact another lawyer of his choosing, but Rodriguez Sanchez told the court he lacked the resources to hire new counsel.  Lopez complained: “Now he is saying something else—this appears to be a tactic to disrupt and slow down the process.”

After deliberating, the court rejected Ramirez’s request for recusal.  Judge Barrios insisted that the process would not be interrupted. To Ramirez, she said: “You must fulfill your obligation.”

Ramirez, reiterating his desire to resign, then pleaded for more time to prepare: “I don’t know anything that has been happening. Of course this is a very big case, so logically I will need time to get caught up, to do a good defense.” He asked for a five day suspension of the proceedings.

Judge Barrios said that she would consider his request, but at a later time in the process. The trial would proceed, fulfilling the Constitutional Court’s directive.

For the next 25 minutes, Judge Barrios re-read the charges against Rios Montt that had been originally presented March 19, during Garcia Gudiel’s absence.

Rios Montt was called to the witness chair and asked, as a formality, to repeat his personal data for the record and recognize that he had heard the charges against him, as he was asked on the first day of the trial. As before, Rios Montt declined to make a statement.

Judge Barrios instructed defense attorney Garcia Gudiel to produce the remaining six defense witnesses on Thursday, along with any pending video testimony. (All courts are closed Wednesday in observation of Labor Day, a national holiday.)

Public defender Ramirez reiterated to the court that he would be ill-equipped to represent his client adequately by Thursday. After deliberations, Judge Barrios told Ramirez that the tribunal would consider his request to have more time to prepare at a later date, but that the trial would resume on Thursday morning.

Several legal challenges (amparos) related to the trial remain pending in other branches of the Guatemalan judiciary, including the Constitutional Court.