On Monday, January 5, a small Guatemala City courtroom was packed to the brim for the anticipated retrial of former head of State Efrain Rios Montt and his then head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Both are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for massacres committed in 1982 and 1983 when General Rios Montt ruled with an iron fist.
Prosecutors allege that Rios Montt was responsible for the killing of 1,771 indigenous Mayans, the displacement of 29,000, and the rape and torture of others during 15 massacres. Nearly half of all reported violations during the bloody 36-year war occurred in 1982, the year in which Rios Montt came to power. In the Ixil region, between 70 and 90 percent of the communities were wiped out around this period.
Rios Montt was convicted and Rodriguez Sanchez acquitted in a 2013 trial. However, in a divided ruling days after the verdict, the constitutional court annulled the judgment on a procedural technicality.
The defense lodged numerous challenges to any new trial, and yesterday morning, neither the case file nor Rios Montt were present in the courtroom, foreshadowing the challenges to come. By the afternoon, Rios Montt was present — brought in by ambulance on a gurney, by court order — but a defense challenge led to the recusal of one of the three presiding judges, suspending the process for an undefined period of time.
The Missing Judicial Case File
The tense political climate around the genocide trial in Guatemala and the outcome of the first trial generated significant skepticism that any new trial would take place at all. Yet victims came from far, many unable to enter the courtroom due to lack of space. Local and international media were present in large numbers.
As the court opened at 8:30 AM, Rios Montt was notably absent. Rios Montt’s lawyer Jaime Hernandez sat with his co-defendant Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez and Rodriguez Sanchez’ lawyers Cesar Calderon and Francisco Palomo. In the early hours of the morning, Rios Montt’s defense attorneys asserted that Rios Montt was too ill to attend the trial.
At the outset, the three judges presiding over this new trial from High Risk Court B — Irma Jeannette Valdez, Sara Yoc Yoc, and Maria Eugenia Castellanos — announced that they did not have the case file, a necessary prerequisite to the initiation of the trial, and delayed the trial until 11 AM to attain the case file. The Supreme Court’s amparo chamber, which deals with constitutional challenges, had retained the original judicial file from a then-unresolved challenge brought by Rios Montt’s attorneys.
The civil parties also requested a larger courtroom but were told that none was available.
The Absent General
At 11 AM, reassembled and now with access to the case file, the tribunal turned to the absence of Rios Montt. His attorneys presented a medical certificate from his personal doctor excusing him for medical reasons, stating that he would suffer “irreversible paralysis in his legs” if he left his home. They asserted that forcing Rios Montt to attend the trial would violate his right to health. A December 3 evaluation by the national forensic authority, INACIF, conducted after Rios Montt refused to attend a pre-trial hearing, found him fit to stand trial. The court thus did not accept Rios Montt’s medical excuse, temporarily suspended the hearing, and ordered the national police to ensure Rios Montt’s presence in the courtroom by 1 PM, with his personal doctor if necessary. The court threatened sanctions if he continued to refuse to attend, including the revocation of his house arrest and requiring his detention during the trial.
Within the hour, the 88-year-old former general arrived at the courtroom by ambulance on a gurney, his face covered and his daughter, former congresswoman Zury Rios, by his side. Some cried out that this was political theater, and the media swarmed the general.
The Judge’s Recusal
The court next turned to Rios Montt’s challenge of the tribunal president, Judge Valdez, with allegations of bias. On December 30, the last working day before the trial, defense attorneys sought Judge Valdez’ recusal on the ground that her 2004 academic thesis — Criteria to Improve the Application of the Crime of Genocide — constituted a pre-formed opinion on the case. According to the defense, in the thesis, Judge Valdez accepted that there had been a genocide in Guatemala and outlined concepts of command responsibility.
The public prosecutor and civil parties denied that her thesis constituted a reason for her to excuse herself and qualified the defense action as nothing more than an abusive delaying tactic, brought 14 months after the tribunal was constituted and the judges were known, on the eve of the trial’s start.
Rodriguez Sanchez’ lawyer did not contest Judge Valdez’ sitting on the tribunal, asserting that the former head of military intelligence merely wants to resolve this case but accepted as legitimate Rios Montt’s concerns.
Judge Valdez, who has served as a judge on numerous high-profile and complex cases over the past 22 years, asserted that she had no particular interest, or bias, in hearing the case and that her work was purely academic and did not concern whether the defendant was responsible for the crimes alleged. She also asserted that the timing of the challenge indicated the defendant’s desire to impede the progress of the trial.
After an extended deliberation, the court decided, in a majority decision, that Judge Valdez should excuse herself for reasons of partiality. Judges Yoc and Castellanos affirmed that Judge Valdez had already stated a position on an important question at issue in the trial and that Rios Montt had reason to doubt her impartiality. They thus suspended, again, the reopening of the trial, this time for an indefinite period.
What Comes Next?
In theory, an appellate court could designate a new judge to complete the three-judge panel in the coming days. However, it took months for this panel to be constituted because scores of appellate court judges refused to intervene. Moreover, Rios Montt has challenged numerous judges already, and there are a limited number of judges in the high-risk courts tasked to decide complex cases. The issue of Judge Valdez’ recusal may also be decided by a higher court.
An appellate court also still needs to decide whether or not a 1986 amnesty decree should prevent the prosecution of Rios Montt. On December 23, the appellate court notified the parties that it would resolve this issue within five days, but the defense challenge to one of the judges has postponed a final decision. In response to a different challenge, the amparo chamber yesterday confirmed the competence of the high risk court before the day’s hearing ended.
The prospect of a new trial already seems poised to reignite some of the concerns surrounding the prior process. During the hearing, civil parties described the new process as unnecessary — a result of an improper ruling by the constitutional court, which they are challenging before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
President Otto Perez Molina, a former military leader himself, called for an end to “indirect pressure” related to the trial, specifically contesting the presence in the courtroom of foreign diplomats. In December, the U.S. government pronounced that its continued support for Guatemala would be conditioned on the advancement of judicial processes related to the crimes committed during the country’s armed conflict, and the country’s ceasing to use military forces for citizen security. The Foundation Against Terrorism, led by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, son of Rios Montt’s interior minister, yesterday published a full-page ad describing as “abusive” the U.S. government’s support for a conclusion of the genocide trial.
During Monday’s trial, the public prosecutor was represented by lawyers Orlando Lopez, Hilda Pineda, and Eric De Leon and was accompanied by the civil parties representing the victims — the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), represented by lawyers Edgar Perez and Santiago Choc, and the Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH), represented by its director, Juan Francisco Soto, and lawyers Hector Reyes and Francisco Villar.
After the final suspension of the day, the defendants left the courtroom quickly. The victims chanted “Justice for Genocide” as they slowly made their way out. Survivors outside the courtroom expressed a resignation; they rested on the previously issued verdict but committed to continue to be present.
For background on the 2013 trial and a translation of key sections of the judgment, see Judging a Dictator, available here