Guatemala Transitional Justice Update: Another Judge Excused and Continued Debate Around the Renewal of CICIG’s Mandate

The resolution of the amnesty question is again delayed in the case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his former head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, as another judge excused herself from hearing the case. Judge Elizabeth Méndez excused herself on the ground that one of Rios Montt’s defense attorneys supervised her university thesis.

Three judges must review the issue. Judge Méndez became the seventh judge to refuse to hear the case since the new appellate court has been formed in November of last year. According to Héctor Reyes, lawyer for civil party Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), the political nature of the question explains the difficulty of constituting an appellate court.

Rios Montt’s defense attorneys have long sought to apply one of the historical amnesties to prevent any trial related to crimes committed during his brutal 17-month rule in 1982 and 1983. The so-called “self-amnesty” at issue now was issued in 1986 by General Mejia Victores, Rios Montt’s defense minister and successor. Its terms provide for an extinction of penal responsibility for common and political crimes committed between March 1982 and January 1986.

Previous judicial decisions have rejected the application of an amnesty for international crimes as clearly contrary to a state’s international obligations, but the constitutional court reopened the question in October 2013 when it ruled that the appellate court needed to provide a further explanation of its reasons for denying the amnesty in an earlier decision. Since then, more than sixty judges have refused to sit on a court to consider the question, leaving the issue still unresolved.

Second Witness in Genocide Trial Dies

The significance of the first genocide trial and the effect of the prolonged delay in any new trial for Rios Montt was starkly demonstrated when a second witness who testified in 2013 before the high-risk court during the first trial died on March 13. Pedro Brito Chavez, 43 years old, died in the village of Sajsiban where he lived, in Quiché department. He died from illness and inability to access health services.

In 2013, Brito Chavez testified that he witnessed how the army attack his village in November 1982, killing his mother, his sister, and her newborn baby, as well as other members of his family. He described his flight to the mountains for the survival and the difficult conditions and constant military incursions he was subjected to while displaced.

Brito Chavez is the second witness who died since the 2013 genocide conviction of Rios Montt and the rapid and divided annulment of the verdict by the constitutional court. Clemente Vasquez Mateo, witness during the 2013 trial, died on July 29, 2014 when he was 85 years old.

CALDH lawyer Reyes estimates that 70 percent of the 150 witnesses in the genocide case are more than 80 years old and suffer from health issues which could jeopardize their participation in any eventual new trial.

The new trial had been scheduled to start on January 5 but was suspended after Rios Montt’s defense attorneys presented a recusal action against Judge Jeannette Valdes, which the majority of the judges on the three-judge tribunal accepted. The appellate court has neither confirmed the recusal nor named a new judge to replace Judge Valdes.

Debates Around the Continuity of CICIG

In early March, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden visited Guatemala where he met with President Otto Pérez Molina and his counterparts from El Salvador and Honduras to talk about financial assistance and a plan aimed at strengthening the security in Central America’s “northern triangle.” During his visit, Biden emphasized publicly that the work of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is important and that the continuity of the institution beyond September 2015 – when its term is due to expire absent an extension – would show the state’s commitment to fight against corruption and impunity. Biden also noted that this commitment at the national level could be an essential element for U.S. to be confident investing a billion dollars in the region.

Following Biden’s visit, and apparently in response, Pérez Molina asserted that Guatemala would not accept any outside imposition concerning the renewal of CICIG’s mandate. Pérez Molina recalled that an executive committee is currently analyzing the question and that a final decision will be taken following a report from this committee. The President added that, although Guatemala is considering the question, his Honduran and Salvadoran counterparts do not consider that such an institution would contribute to the strengthening of their national judicial systems.

Last week, Hermann Girón, President of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), met with Supreme Court President, Josué Baquiax, to discuss the matter and how the judicial system could be strengthened.

The executive committee is expected to release its report to the president during the first half of April, and Pérez Molina is due to make a final decision on whether to seek the extension of the CICIG mandate by the end of April.