New Ruling Clears Path for Rios Montt Trial on January 5, but Potential Obstacles Remain

Guatemala’s constitutional court yesterday (December 18) issued a unanimous judgment that removes one of the obstacles for the initiation of the genocide trial of former head of state, Efrain Rios Montt, and his then head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.

The new trial is due to start on January 5, 2015. In May 2013, a trial court convicted Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity, and the country’s highest court moved quickly afterwards to annul the judgment in a divided and controversial decision, calling for a new process. However, an investigative judge, Carol Patricia Flores, had intervened during the 2013 trial to order the process returned to the investigative stage. With the conviction annulled, that remained an open question prior to yesterday’s constitutional court judgment. In yesterday’s unanimous decision, the constitutional court ordered Judge Flores to annul this April 18, 2013 decision.

The prosecution and civil parties had alleged that the consequences of setting back the process to its investigative phase violated the rights of effective judicial protection, free access to justice, and due process. The constitutional court agreed, ordering Judge Flores to annul her decision within five days.

The highest court found that Judge Flores’ decision would improperly set the trial back to an already concluded stage, contrary to due process and expressly prohibited by Guatemalan  law.

The decision was publicly welcomed by all parties. Rios Montt’s defense lawyers recognized that the country’s highest court effectively clarified any doubts as to the procedural phase of the case.

In theory, a second genocide trial should now be back on track to begin on January 5, before the high risk court as scheduled. The constitutional court did not confirm this, however, and there are other potential roadblocks remaining.

Among them, defense attorneys continue to assert that Rios Montt should benefit from a 1986 amnesty decreed by his successor, who toppled him in a coup. On October 22, 2013, the constitutional court asked the appellate court to elaborate its reasoning in a prior decision rejecting the 1986 amnesty for Ríos Montt. This reopened the already-decided question on the application of an amnesty, which would be in clear violation of international law. The appellate court  to rule on this issue still needs to be formed, as one judge of the newly formed court, Marina Mancilla, declined to decide on this issue, arguing that she was part of the prosecution team that investigated the genocide case. Previously, during a contentious judicial nominating process, scores of judges refused to be part of the tribunal to rule on the issue.

The health of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez is also an issue. Rios Montt has not been present in recent hearings, citing health issues, and sources confirmed his deteriorating health. The trial court has ordered an independent evaluation of his health prior to the opening of the trial.