Judgment in Genocide Trial Expected Today at 4 pm Despite Pre-trial Judge's Call for Trial's Annulment

The trial in the case of Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez for genocide and crimes against humanity concluded this morning.

The last order of business was a statement from Rodriguez Sanchez, head of military intelligence under Rios Montt’s government. He spoke to the court, affirming his innocence of the charges against him. Then, with a bang of her gavel, presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios  declared the conclusion of the trial and said that the court would reconvene at 4 pm (Guatemala time) for a verdict and sentencing.

In light of a pre-scheduled hearing called by Judge Carol Patricia Flores, a pre-trial judge who handles evidentiary and other matters in connection with the case, Judge Barrios instructed the parties that, while they may attend that hearing, they are nonetheless expected to be in the courtroom at 4 pm sharp for the judgment.

In a stunning turn of events, Judge Flores then convened a hearing in which she re-affirmed a prior order annulling the entire trial and returning the case to where it was in November 2011. Judge Flores’ hearing was ostensibly called to implement a Constitutional Court judgment issued on May 8, 2013. However, the Constitutional Court’s judgment rejected the prior order Judge Flores issued annulling the trial when it was already in its late stages, and Judge Flores just issued the same order. The prosecutor strongly objected and called this order entirely inconsistent with the Constitutional Court’s judgment.

Public Ministry officials and the civil parties have asserted that, despite Judge Flores’ order, the parties will re-convene this afternoon and they expect that the court will issue its verdict and sentence then.

Final Statement of Rodriguez Sanchez

The courtroom was packed this morning and some could not enter for lack of space. At 8 am, Judge Barrios ceded the floor to Rodriguez Sanchez, who approached the witness stand in his wheelchair.

Rodriguez Sanchez affirmed his innocence and contested the evidence introduced against him.

He said that neither he nor the military operational plans presented as evidence against him—Plans Victoria 82, Firmeza 83, and Sofia—ever stated that the Maya Ixil people were the internal enemy. “I don’t know how the Public Ministry pulled that out of their sleeve. We never said that the Ixil was the internal enemy.” These were national-level plans—there were guerrillas in Peten, Ixcan, Quiche, San Marcos, and in urban areas and the southern coast—they were not implemented with the intention of exterminating the Ixil population.

Rodriguez Sanchez also said he was an advisor, and therefore not part of the chain of command. An advisor cannot emit orders, which, he said, was confirmed in the statements by military experts Rodolfo Robles and Quilo Ayuso.

“I was never an accessory to genocide,” he affirmed emphatically. “It hurts me as a Christian to see so many witnesses living with their pain,” he stated, “but I did not order this. There is not a single document that says Mauricio Rodriguez ordered this!”

He then held up a book and waved some papers around to illustrate the difference between the plans and their annexes, insisting that the Public Ministry does not understand the annexes and therefore is misinterpreting the significance of the evidence introduced. Plans lay out the strategic objectives; the annexes do different things, such as evaluate the food supply for troops, or the effects of military actions on the population.

He concluded by saying: “I have demonstrated that there were no plans. Also, I was never in the Ixil area. Ever. I do not know why I am here. I am innocent.  I have been wrongfully jailed for 19 for months. I ask for my freedom.”

With the conclusion of Rodriguez Sanchez’s statement, Judge Barrios banged her gavel and stated: “The courtroom proceedings have concluded.”

She instructed the parties that the judgment would be handed down at 4 pm.

As a murmur rose up in the courtroom and people began packing up their things, she asked for everyone’s attention. She said that she was aware of the hearing convened by Judge Flores and stated that the parties were now free to attend that hearing, but that she was instructing them to be in the courtroom promptly at 4 pm for the sentencing.

Judge Flores Emits New Order to Annul the Trial; Verdict and Sentencing Still Expected at 4 pm Today

Immediately following the closing of the trial by Judge Barrios and the trial court, Judge Carol Patricia Flores, a first-instance judge of Guatemala’s high-risk courts, intervened in a repeated effort to annul the trial.

After the trial court released the lawyers and defendants from the proceedings this morning, calling all to return at 4 pm for the verdict, the parties went to Judge Flores’ courtroom to attend the hearing that she had called for 8:15 this morning. They arrived and started the hearing an hour behind schedule. The hearing was called to implement a May 8 decision of the Constitutional Court.

Judge Flores is now assigned as the judge overseeing pre-trial evidentiary and other matters (juez controlador or juez de primera instancia). She was recently reinstated, replacing Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, another pre-trial judge, after the appellate court overturned an earlier November 28, 2011 order for her recusal, or disqualification. She notified the parties of her reinstatement on April 17, 2013, with the trial already well underway.

Judge Flores’ first action, after her reinstatement, was to issue an order to annul the entire trial on April 18, on the eve of anticipated closing arguments, and to return the case to its status in November 2011, when she was recused from the case. In November 2011, neither Rios Montt nor Rodriguez Sanchez had been indicted.

At the time, Judge Flores justified her decision on the ground that the appellate court had recognized her recusal as improper, and thus, in her view, the case must return to the date at which she was recused, improperly. She justified her intervention at that time on the ground that the Constitutional Court had, on April 3, ordered the pre-trial judge to modify its ruling concerning the admissibility of defense evidence. However, in her April 18 hearing, she did not in fact act to modify the order concerning the admissibility of defense evidence at the time because, she said, that would be inconsistent with her order to return the trial to its status as of November 2011—a time far preceding the stage when the court considers the admissibility of evidence.

The trial court on April 19 rejected the annulment of the trial as illegal, and sought guidance from the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court issued various rulings in the subsequent days, but none concerning the legality of the annulment until May 8. However, the Constitutional Court did require Judge Flores to issue a judgment on the narrow question of the admissibility of defense evidence—and to issue this ruling in a manner that is “exactly” consistent with the Constitutional Court judgment—and then to immediately return the case file to the trial court.

On May 8, after the trial court had already lifted its suspension and with Judge Flores still insisting that her April 18 annulment order was legal, the Constitutional Court issued a judgment addressing Judge Flores’ annulment order. In its May 8 judgment, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Public Ministry in its challenge to Judge Flores’ annulment order. The Court ordered Judge Flores to suspend her April 18 annulment order and, within 48 hours, issue a new order replacing the suspended one.

The Public Ministry had insisted that Judge Flores acted improperly, exceeding her authority, and that the annulment order was a violation of the rights of both the victims and the defendants to “swift and effective justice” (“una justicia pronta y cumplida”).

Judge Flores attempted to convene a hearing on Thursday at 2 pm, while the trial court was scheduled to hear the defense’s closing arguments, and again this morning while the trial court was hearing the statement of Rodriguez Sanchez. She was finally able to convene a hearing at 9:30 am this morning, after the trial court fully completed the trial—having heard all evidence and closing statements and calling on the parties to return at 4 pm for a verdict.

At the hearing, Judge Flores issued a new order annulling the trial, despite the Constitutional Court’s rejection of her first annulment. According to Judge Flores, the Constitutional Court required her only to suspend the first annulment and issue a new order; she insisted that this was all she was doing.

She stated that she was not exceeding her authority, as had been argued by the Public Ministry. She again insisted that the case must revert to where it was in November 2011, and that her order issued today was consistent with the Constitutional Court’s May 8 judgment.

The Public Ministry strongly objected, but Judge Flores continued to stand by her order. Orlando Lopez, representing the Public Ministry, contested Judge Flores’ interpretation of the May 8 Constitutional Court judgment—in his view, the Constitutional Court judgment required that Judge Flores emit a different judgment, and not merely re-affirm the one she had previously issued.

Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz previously stated that Judge Flores’ April 18 annulment order was illegal. Yet media sources have quoted defense attorney Francisco Palomo asserting that any verdict issued today “will be null” (sera nula) on account of Judge Flores’ actions this morning. Sources from the Public Ministry and civil parties insist that Judge Flores’ actions today are patently in violation of the Constitutional Court’s judgment, and that nothing in her order suspends the trial or prevents the planned release of the verdict this afternoon. They have stated that they still expect Judge Barrios to convene the parties to issue a verdict at 4 pm today, and that that verdict will be legitimate.

Emi MacLean, Legal Officer of the Open Society Justice Initiative, provided the legal analysis and contributed writing for this blog.