Guatemala Awaits Constitutional Court’s Rulings Following Rios Montt Guilty Verdict

Since before the start of the Guatemalan genocide trial, defense counsel filed scores of legal challenges—including some to delay or prevent the proceedings; challenge the impartiality of the presiding judges; or put into question the fairness of the trial. Now, in the week following the guilty verdict of former de facto head of state Efrain Rios Montt, defense counsel seek to overturn the guilty verdict, nullify the entire trial, and impugn the judges. The Constitutional Court has said that it plans to release three judgments in connection with the Rios Montt trial midday on Wednesday.

Rios Montt’s lawyer, Francisco García Gudiel, has informed the media that there are at least 12 legal challenges pending before the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court of Guatemala. Garcia Gudiel claims to have filed at least two new legal challenges before the Constitutional Court, immediately after the trial court’s May 10, 2013 ruling. One legal recourse (an amparo) alleges several procedural irregularities in the trial that violated his client’s constitutional rights to due process, among them that Ríos Montt was denied his right to counsel of choice—himself—during the critical time that evidence was collected in the trial.  Using a second recourse (ocurso en queja), Garcia Gudiel alleges that the trial court refused to abide by an appellate court decision (from the Third Chamber), which had ordered the suspension of the trial until some evidentiary matters were resolved by a pre-trial judge Judge Carol Patricia Flores.

The legal challenges seek to stop the release of the formal judgment—scheduled for this Friday, May 17, 2013; nullify the entire trial and revert it back to 2011; and disqualify the three judges who sentenced Rios Montt. These judges are Yassmín Barrios, Patricia Bustamante, and Pablo Xitumul. Martín Guzmán, Secretary of the Constitutional Court, in a public interview on Tuesday, confirmed that a ruling of the Constitutional Court granting the recourses could order a new trial.

Depending on the outcome with the Constitutional Court challenges, García Gudiel has also stated his intention to appeal the sentence in a week based on similar grounds, in addition to other allegations about the trial court’s refusal to comply with decisions of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Constitutional Court.

Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, former head of military intelligence and the co-accused, was acquitted last week on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Yet his lawyer has also filed various legal challenges subsequent to the close of the trial. On Monday, May 13, Moisés Galindo, the lawyer for Rodríguez Sánchez, reportedly even filed a criminal complaint alleging abuse of power and failure to comply with binding judgments from other courts in Guatemala during the trial.

As well, since the verdict, the Institute of Public Criminal Defense (Instituto de la Defensa Publica Penal) has reportedly filed a legal recourse (recurso de exibición personal y amparo) against the trial court for ordering public defender Otto Ramírez to step in to serve as legal counsel to co-defendant José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. The Institute challenged, in particular, the requirement that Ramirez serve as defense counsel even after the return of Rodriguez Sanchez’ prior attorneys who had abandoned the trial in protest on April 18. The Institute is seeking the annulment of the end of the trial, and its return to its status on May 8.

Some of the challenges to the tribunal’s management of the case during the trial pertain to alleged abuse of authority by the trial court in sidestepping or ignoring orders of other courts, or violating the rights of the defense. The main specific issues identified by the defense in connection with the trial are challenges to (1) the adequacy of Rios Montt’s representation on the first day of the trial; (2) determinations by a pre-trial judge on the admissibility of evidence; (3) a decision by a different pre-trial judge that the entire trial should be annulled, now twice; and (4) the purported non-adherence of the trial court with orders from the Supreme Court or Constitutional Court during the course of the trial. The Constitutional Court issued various rulings during the course of the trial, but they tended to only serve to spur more legal challenges, rather than resolve and clarify the issue.

Subsequent to the trial, presiding Judge Barrios has come under particular scrutiny. As noted above and previously, the defense lawyers have called for an investigation of Judge Barrios’ actions, and made a criminal complaint against her.

She has also been criticized heavily in the media. A local TV station in Guatemala on Tuesday circulated a video which they alleged showed Judge Barrios having breakfast with foreign women from an NGO that supported the charges, the day after rendering the guilty verdict. Later on Tuesday, other reports claimed that the women were Judge Barrios’ mother and friends, or more specifically, a neighbor and a religious person.

On Tuesday, García Gudiel called on the Ministry of the Interior to investigate why Judge Barrios and the women allegedly entered a police vehicle when trying to leave the restaurant to avoid the media. Galindo has sought to impeach Barrios as a result of the alleged breakfast with foreigners. In the same or another legal challenge to the Supreme Court, he reportedly alleged that she should be dismissed for being “dangerously egocentric”. The complaint alleges abuse of authority and collusion.

Also yesterday, the influential business association CACIF issued a paid public statement in the media calling on Guatemalans to speak out against the verdict as it assails the entire country:  “The world will look at us as genocidal.” The CACIF statement asserts that Guatemalans will be seen as the Nazis now are, unless the public challenges the verdict.

Emi MacLean, Legal Officer of the Open Society Justice Initiative, contributed to the research and writing of this blog.


  1. The problem with convicting Rios Montt is that it tacitly convicts the current president of Guatemala, who should be impeached, but it also calls into question why there are U.S. officials currently in the Obama administration who actively served as diplomat and lied about what was going on during the atrocities that were being perpetrated against the Mayan people in Guatemala. I guess that covering up may benefit not only Rios Montt and his minions, but a lot of other folks not only in Guatemala but in the United States of America.

  2. I’ve already submitted a comment two days ago. I don’t understand the reason why it is not published, and why I’m asked to submit another one.(?)

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