Constitutional Court Rejects Sanctions Against Judge Who Convicted Rios Montt of Genocide

Yesterday, Guatemala’s constitutional court unanimously rejected sanctions imposed by the Guatemalan lawyers association against Judge Yassmin Barrios, who presided over the trial convicting former dictator Efraín Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity. The court recognized the bar association’s actions as an improper intrusion on judicial independence. The country’s highest court ruled that judges may only be sanctioned by proper judicial oversight authorities.

Judge Barrios presided over a three-judge trial court that convicted the former head of state in May 2013. Within days, the constitutional court annulled that verdict in a divided and controversial ruling. There has not yet been a new trial.

Nonetheless the ramifications for Judge Barrios have continued.

In a January 2014 decision, the ethics tribunal of the Guatemalan lawyers association sanctioned Judge Barrios for “ridiculing” a defense attorney during the trial. Attorney Moises Galindo had filed a complaint against Judge Barrios, asserting that she “publicly humiliated” him by forcing him to defend Rios Montt, who he had previously represented, after the trial court ejected another defense attorney.

Judge Barrios appealed the bar association ruling—believed to be only the second reprimand issued by the association in the past five years. The bar association’s ruling was heavily criticized by a diverse array of domestic and international actors. At the time, Alejandro Balsells, former president of the Center for the Defense of the Constitution (CEDECÓN), described the action of the bar association as “a political and not a legal act.”

The assembly of professional associations confirmed the decision of the lawyers association on April 28, 2014. However, it rejected the fine and yearlong suspension the lawyers association had demanded and instead imposed a private reprimand, rather than a public one.

In this recent judgment (dated March 4), the constitutional court suspended all sanctions and penalties imposed by the lawyers association’s ethics tribunal. The court recognized the lawyers’ association as “not competent to hear complaints against judges for their judicial actions.” According to the highest court, the lawyers’ association sanction constituted an unjustified intrusion in the judicial process.

The constitutional court ordered the assembly of professional associations, the administrative appellate body that confirmed the bar association’s resolution, to issue a new resolution within five days and imposed a fine on its members.

Galindo, the defense attorney who filed the initial complaint against Judge Barrios, is himself facing corruption charges. He is one of eight former military officers, along with a son of Ríos Montt, accused of siphoning off over $60 million of public funds from the defense ministry in 2001.