Rios Montt Lodges New Bias Claims Against Guatemalan Judges

A second trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for former Guatemalan head of state Efrain Rios Montt is still scheduled for Monday, January 5, after the country’s highest court annulled a May 2013 conviction only days after the verdict. In the most recent challenges, Rios Montt’s attorneys have presented accusations of bias against trial court and appellate judges, raising new questions about whether the trial will indeed start on Monday.

An appeals court is due to issue a decision concerning whether a 1986 amnesty should apply to prevent the prosecution of Rios Montt. A decision was expected on Monday, but no decision has yet been issued. Defense lawyers have challenged the impartiality of Edith Marilena Ordóñez Pérez, one of the appellate court judges, which may further delay a final resolution. Defense attorneys challenged the judge’s impartiality because of prior decisions she had issued. Judge Ordóñez Pérez had already replaced Aura Marina Mancilla after the latter excused herself as a former prosecutor and member of the Public Ministry’s Human Rights Prosecution Unit.

The appeals court had earlier ruled that the 1986 amnesty did not apply to prevent the prosecution of Rios Montt and his co-accused Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. However, in October 2013, the country’s constitutional court required the appeals court to further elaborate on this ruling. After prolonged delays, in a Christmas surprise, the appeals court was constituted on December 23 with five days to issue a decision. Some legal commentators have argued that the appeals court can do no more than expand on the prior ruling. However, with a new slate of judges and all eyes on the court in a contentious case, there are fears that the court could resurrect the amnesty. International actors have recently weighed in—including distinguished Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón and Thomas Buergenthal, former judge on the International Court of Justice and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, who recognized that international law clearly obliges the Guatemalan government to investigate, prosecute, and punish grave violations of human rights.

Yesterday, defense lawyers also officially challenged the impartiality of Jeannette Valdez, the presiding judge on the high-risk trial court set to hear the case. According to Rios Montt’s lawyers, Judge Valdez demonstrated bias as she wrote an academic thesis about the genocide in Guatemala. Rumors circulated in the Guatemalan media on Tuesday that Judge Valdez agreed not to hear the case, but Judge Valdez confirmed herself that she continues to sit on the three-judge tribunal tasked to hear the case. In a statement quoted by newspaper Prensa Libre, Judge Valdez confirmed the thesis but stated only that “it is related to academic work.”

On the opening day of the first genocide trial in 2013, the defense attorneys sought unsuccessfully to force the removal of two of the three trial court judges.

Finally, in what may seem purely a logistical matter, the designated trial court does not currently have the case file—a necessary prerequisite for initiating the trial. The constitutional court received the case file in mid-December, to make a judgment on another then-unresolved matter. While the constitutional court issued a decision which cleared the case to begin on January 5, the case file has nonetheless not yet been returned to the trial court and remains now with a tribunal hearing constitutional challenges (Camara de Amparo y Antejuicio), which still must rule on whether the high-risk court is competent to hear the case, following yet another pre-trial challenge by the defense.

Meanwhile, the conclusion of the paradigmatic case of the Spanish embassy fire – in which 37 indigenous and student protesters, as well as dignitaries, were killed – is further delayed. Expected to end this month, the prosecution, civil parties, and defense, in a hearing yesterday, requested to introduce new evidence. The court accepted that the prosecutors’ originally designated forensic expert, Gilberto Sajché Sosa, was unfit to testify for medical reasons. The court thus ordered the National Institute of Forensic Sciences to identify and provide another expert witness to interpret the forensic reports conducted on the autopsies after the fire 34 years ago. The civil parties will also present one more witness and one more audio recording—of journalist Marco Antonio Figueroa’s interviews of witnesses to the fire. The defense of Pedro Garcia Arredondo will present four new witnesses. The court set the next hearing date in the case of the Spanish embassy fire for Friday, January 9.