International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

Imminent Constitutional Court Judgments May Affect Guatemalan Genocide Conviction

The conviction of former de facto head of state Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity faces continuing challenges. The verdict was issued on Friday, May 10, with the court imposing an 80-year sentence; a full judgment is due to be released in a hearing on Friday, May 17. However, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court plans to release various judgments in advance of Friday’s hearing which threaten to complicate matters, and even potentially annul the trial.

Uncertain impact of anticipated Constitutional Court judgments

The Constitutional Court was reportedly due to release four judgments on Wednesday at midday. Chaos reigned at the court at the time the Constitutional Court had set for the release of the judgments:  there was a pro-Rios Montt demonstration outside and a purported bomb threat inside. After four hours of deliberation, the Constitutional Court announced that it would not release any rulings on Wednesday, but instead could release up to six rulings on Thursday due to the “complexity of the subject matter.”

Martin Guzman, General Secretary of the Constitutional Court, in an interview with Emisoras Unidas, recounted that the Constitutional Court is reviewing four legal challenges which could result in the annulment of the trial or the dismissal of the trial court judges.

Guzman also noted that the Court still needs to review two legal challenges related to the application of the country’s 1996 National Reconciliation Law, enacted subsequent to the Peace Accords. (The National Reconciliation Law includes a limited amnesty provision which explicitly prohibits the application of amnesty to genocide and other international crimes.)

During the trial, the Constitutional Court did not intervene to prevent the process from advancing, and issued judgments which permitted it to continue when it stalled. However, their judgments were often only partially responsive to the major challenges presented, and opened up additional questions. For instance, during a nearly two-week suspension of the trial, called to seek constitutional review of the order of a pre-trial judge to annul the trial in its entirety, the Constitutional Court issued various decisions but no judgment on the substantive merits of the annulment order.

The Constitutional Court did reject the annulment order eventually, in a May 8 judgment, but only when the trial court had already re-opened the trial and initiated closing arguments. (Judge Carol Patricia Flores, the same pre-trial judge who had issued the initial annulment order, relied on the Constitutional Court’s May 8 rejection of her first annulment order to issue another, identical, annulment order in the seven-hour window between the official close of the trial and the issuance of the verdict.)

Also, the pending and new challenges highlight some issues already addressed, at least in part, by the Constitutional Court.

Government statements regarding international interference

The government, subsequent to the verdict, has largely aimed to emphasize in public statements that the trial demonstrates Guatemala’s judicial independence and ability to prosecute complex cases. However, on Tuesday, in an official announcement from the Foreign Ministry, Guatemala also called on foreign governments to avoid interfering with Guatemala’s sovereignty. (“…[S]e debe ver reflejado en un actuar correspondiente a las costumbres y normativas diplomáticas aceptadas por todos los Estados y, en particular, en la no injerencia en asuntos nacionales y judiciales que se conocen, deliberan y resuleven con absoluta libertad, independencia y autonomia.”)

President Otto Perez Molina reiterated these calls on Wednesday, though asserting that the Foreign Ministry’s statement was not intended to point to any specific instance of wrongdoing.

The President’s spokesperson, Francisco Cuevas, also criticized NGOs, “with international support,” for supporting the polarization in the country, noting that many foreigners, belonging to these NGOs, attended the trial. Cuevas implied that this might constitute inappropriate “pressure” or interference in the judicial process. (“Es evidente la presencia de personas que no son guatemaltecas durante el proceso que se realizó en la sala de vistas de la Corte Suprema de Justicia; consideramos que la Justicia debe ser imparcial, sin presiones.”)

Guatemalan business lobby seeks to have genocide conviction overturned

The powerful business association CACIF continues in its public campaign to challenge the verdict and seeks its annulment. In a paid public statement issued on Tuesday, CACIF claimed that the genocide conviction tarnished all Guatemalans, and Guatemalans should challenge it to avoid being perceived internationally as on par with the Nazis.

A Wednesday blog by Philip Chicola, hosted by CACIF, expanded upon this argument:  “Guatemala has joined the select club of genocidal states, together with Nazi Germany, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Cambodia,” with major implications for international perceptions of Guatemala, the threat of further prosecutions, and likely obligations of significant future financial or land transfers to the Ixil population. Chicola’s blog also described the planned 2014 elections of judges and the Attorney General as “the mother of all battles”—in light of the outcome of the genocide trial.

International actors continue to hail the judgment

Prominent international voices continue to recognize the judgment as demonstrative of the possibility of effective domestic prosecution of international crimes.

On Wednesday, a group of United Nations experts released a statement emphasizing that “justice is the best guarantee to prevent the recurrence of these crimes.” Pablo de Grieff, a UN Special Rapporteur joining the statement, called Guatemala’s trial court judgment an “example for many other countries struggling to address the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence after periods of mass atrocities.”

The International Crisis Group on Monday identified the conviction as a sign that “no one is above the law and everyone – including indigenous communities long marginalized by discrimination and poverty – has the right to seek justice in the courts.”

Rios Montt remains hospitalized

Meanwhile, the Military Medical Center where Rios Montt has resided since Monday after spending a weekend in Matamoros Prison immediately following his conviction, announced that Rios Montt may spend longer in the hospital than originally thought in light of various medical tests.