Trial Against Rios Montt is Increasingly Uncertain; Former Guatemalan Police Agent Ordered to Pay Reparations

Any new trial for former head of state Efraín Rios Montt and his then head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, for genocide and crimes against humanity is becoming increasingly uncertain. His conviction in 2013 was annulled on a technicality, and the new trial scheduled for January 5, 2015 was suspended after the general’s defense attorneys challenged the impartiality of the court president. Three weeks later, no judge has been named to replace Judge Jeannette Valdes, who was excluded from the case, and Rios Montt’s health situation is putting into serious doubt his eventual participation in any new judicial process.

Nonetheless, in other Guatemalan transitional justice processes, the court ordered the convicted defendant, former police official Pedro Garcia Arredondo, to pay reparations to the victims of the Spanish embassy fire and an appellate court cleared one obstacle for the anticipated start of a trial in the case concerning sexual slavery on the Sepur Zarco military installation during the war.

The General’s Deteriorating Health

The deteriorating health of former general Rios Montt is raising further questions about his participation in any eventual trial. On January 13, a hearing was held before Judge Carol Patricia Flores, the investigative pre-trial judge in the high-risk court, on what should have been a minor matter. (The Constitutional Court ordered her to rescind her resolution to send the trial back to the period before the time when Rios Montt was indicted.) Rios Montt did not attend this hearing for medical reasons. While the prosecution did not object to his being represented by his attorneys given the nature of the hearing, Rios Montt’s attorneys argued that this would violate the defendant’s rights.

Judge Flores thus suspended the hearing without issuing any new resolution. A medical report by the National Forensic Institute, presented subsequently on Judge Flores’ orders, determined that Rios Montt is clinically stable but suffers from a spinal infection for which movement would cause a deterioration in his health. Judge Flores ordered a weekly medical evaluation until the defendant is declared fit to come to court.

In the last medical report, the National Forensic Institute found that Rios Montt’s health had deteriorated and affirmed that the damages caused by the infection were irreversible, making it decreasingly likely that he could ever participate in a new trial for his alleged responsibility in genocide and crimes against humanity under his rule.

Challenges to the Impartiality of Judges

Further, no decision has yet been made regarding the judges who would oversee a trial.

After Rios Montt successfully challenged Judge Valdes’ recusal in the case on the day the scheduled trial was due to start, the civil parties to the case – representing the victims – appealed this ruling. The defense challenge to Judge Valdes was grounded in the fact that she had written a thesis entitled, Criteria for a Better Application of the Crime of Genocide. The civil parties, in their appeal, argued that Judge Valdes’ thesis was an academic treatise and does not constitute a prior opinion in the case before her. They argued that accepting a recusal on this ground would create a dangerous precedent as a judge’s specialization in a specific area of the law could be an obstacle for them to hear cases in that area.

They also argued that the action was not presented on time. Guatemalan law requires that parties have five days to present a request for the recusal of a judge from the date the court is constituted and the opening of the trial is scheduled—in this case, that was November 2013; the defense challenge was in December 2014. The defense attorneys previously made public comments about the thesis, demonstrating that they knew of its existence.

For their part, the civil parties have also sought to recuse the President of the Appellate Chamber, Judge Anabella Esmeralda Cardona, from hearing their challenge, on the ground that she has recently participated in lectures presented by the military. No decision has been made on the challenge to Judge Valdes’ recusal, or the requested recusal of the appellate court judge.

Spanish Embassy Reparations

The court that heard the Spanish embassy case has now also resolved the question of reparations. On January 19, the high-risk court convicted Pedro Garcia Arredondo, former head of a Special Investigations Unit called “Command 6” of the now-defunct National Police, of homicide, attempted homicide, and crimes against humanity for his responsibility in the 1980 Spanish embassy fire that killed 37 indigenous and student protestors, diplomats, and visitors.

On January 22, following a hearing, the same court ordered Arredondo to pay 9 million quetzals (approximately $1.2 million) to the victims’ families in reparations, to be divided among the families of six of the victims: Rigoberta Menchu and her siblings, who lost their father Vincente Menchu; Sergio Vi, who also lost his father Gaspar Vi Vi; Rodolfo Anleu, whose mother, Maria Lucrecia Rivas, was employed at the Spanish embassy and died in the fire; Agustina Xitumul, whose husband Francisco Chen was one of the indigenous protesters who occupied the embassy; and Rafael Gonzalez and Juan Lopez Camaja, who both respectively lost a brother and a father in the massacre.

In a majority decision, the court denied the civil parties’ petition to consider the State as jointly and severally responsible as it was not a party in the process. As a result, the effective execution of the reparation is unlikely.

The court also rejected the other petitions from the civil parties, such as a public apology from the current President, Interior Ministry and General Director of the National Civil Police; the construction of a human rights study center; and the production of a documentary.

Sepur Zarco Sexual Slavery Case

In the Sepur Zarco case, challenging the sexual abuse of women and girls on a military installation during the war, an appellate court rejected the petition for the recusal of Judge Miguel Angel Galvez, the investigative trial judge. This clears one obstacle for the advancement of the case. The defendants are also challenging what they allege are variations in the indictment from its initial version, and this question remains unresolved.