A New Judge is Appointed to Hear Genocide Trial as Final Decision Around CICIG’s Mandate Approaches

Last week, with the appointment of a judge to replace one who was forced to recuse herself in early January, there is now a full trial court established to retry former dictator Efraín Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. Rios Montt was found guilty on May 10, 2013, but the verdict was overturned 10 days later by a divided and controversial decision from the constitutional court, which required a new trial. Many obstacles remain for any new trial, however, and victims have also raised this case before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Meanwhile, many in Guatemala are focused on whether the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) will be extended beyond September 2015, a decision the president is due to make this month.

Will There be Another Genocide Trial in Guatemala?

On April 9, the high-risk appeals court named Judge Jaime Delmar Gonzalez to complete the three-judge trial court set to rehear the case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. They are charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in relation with the killing of 1,771 indigenous people and the rape and torture of many others.

A new trial was scheduled to start on January 5 but was suspended the same day after Rios Montt’s defense attorneys succeeded in forcing the recusal of Presiding Judge Jeannette Valdes. With the naming of Judge Gonzalez, there is again a full panel.

However, many obstacles remain for a new trial to start. The high-risk court’s calendar makes it unlikely that a new date can be set before 2017. Moreover, the former general’s declining health situation could impede a new trial, as he has refused to appear by video conference, as recommended by the Guatemalan national health institute. There is still an outstanding question of whether a historic amnesty might prevent the prosecution, contrary to prior domestic and international decisions on this issue. Further, the investigative judge, Carol Patricia Flores, has not yet resolved various preliminary matters and has refused to do so without Rios Montt appearing in person.

Will CICIG Last Beyond September?

Likely by the end of the month, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina must decide whether or not the CICIG mandate will be extended beyond September, when its current mandate expires.

An executive commission (known as the Instancia or ICSJ) established by Pérez Molina to issue recommendations is due to issue its report this week. The committee consists of four state justice sector actors: the supreme court president, attorney general, interior minister, and the head of the public defense institute.

Press reports from sources purportedly close to the committee have suggested that the committee may recommend two options that would permit CICIG to remain in Guatemala but with seriously limited independence and capacities, a position that some justice observers find untenable or merely a delaying tactic.

These reports suggest that the committee could recommend a modification in CICIG’s mandate or place it under the supervision of national institutions. Even the logistics of these options would be burdensome or impossible, according to some experts, as any change in mandate would require negotiations with the United Nations and congressional approval. The end of the current mandate coincides with Guatemala’s national elections, to take place on September 13, seriously complicating any such efforts.

Experts see such potential proposals as neutralizing and undermining the potential for CICIG to independently investigate important cases, particularly corruption cases linked to the government. Prensa Libre describes one source stating that these recommendations would intend to make CICIG “toothless.”

Guatemalan legal experts have continued to publicly support the renewal of CICIG’s mandate and its work fighting impunity. In an event last week on strengthening the justice system, twenty representatives of national organizations spoke on the importance of CICIG’s remaining in Guatemala. Marco Sagastume, of the national lawyers association, described the continuation of CICIG as “indispensable, necessary and vital;” Mario Itzep, of the Indigenous Observatory, described CICIG as “a tool to guarantee justice … when the public ministry falls short.”

Foreign governments, and the United States most vocally, have also emphasized the importance of the continuation of CICIG. In the framework of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, US President Barack Obama linked the Plan for Prosperity – the proposed $1 billion financial support to the so-called Northern Triangle region (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) – to a commitment from national governments to improve transparency. For his part, President Pérez Molina, speaking at the Summit, strongly criticized foreign interference in national institutions.

CICIG was created at the Guatemalan government’s request to fight against impunity and started its work in 2007 for a two-year period. After being extended three times, its mandate is due to end in September.