More than two years after the Guatemalan Constitutional Court swiftly annulled the historic genocide conviction against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on technicalities, the prospect for any new trial is becoming increasingly unlikely. Last week, the national forensic institute asserted that the former general’s health is deteriorating, affecting his mental capacities, and requested that the court order a psychiatric assessment. Rios Montt’s defense attorneys argue that the case should be closed if Rios Montt is deemed unfit for trial; the law prohibits prosecution where the defendant is intellectually incapacitated.
A retrial scheduled for January 5, 2015, already 19 months after the initial verdict, was suspended after Rios Montt’s defense lawyers forced the ouster of one of the judges on last-minute allegations of partiality. A new judge, Jaime Delmar Gonzalez, has been appointed, but no date for the retrial has been set. Further, despite an order to do so by the Constitutional Court, investigative judge Carol Patricia Flores refused to rescind her 2013 judgment upending the case; she cited Rios Montt’s ailing health.
Now Judge Flores herself faces allegations of corruption as a result of an investigation by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which found that her assets far exceed her legal income. After receiving evidence on Friday, Judge Jaime Amilcar Gonzalez is expected to make a recommendation to the Supreme Court that will determine whether to lift Judge Flores’ judicial immunity.
Other Obstacles to Transitional Justice Prosecutions
Other transitional justice cases are also facing obstacles. A paradigmatic case concerning sexual violence at the Sepur Zarco military base has been stalled since last year. Among the unresolved issues is whether prosecutors can add the crime of enforced disappearance at this stage of the process. In April, Sepur Zarco defendant Colonel Francisco Reyes was also hospitalized, which delayed one preliminary hearing in which the prosecution was due to present its evidence for review.
One case on appeal may also have ramifications for other transitional justice cases in the pipeline. On July 7, an appellate court is due to hear arguments as to whether a court can prosecute an individual for enforced disappearance during the armed conflict. In June 2014, a trial court had refused to convict military commissioner José Manuel Castañeda, in part on the ground that the criminal code did not include the crime of enforced disappearance at the time of the crime, in 1983.
Meanwhile, Orlando Lopez, head of Guatemala’s human rights prosecution unit, still faces a travel ban following an April 13 hearing concerning allegations about public statements Lopez made concerning the genocide trial. Lopez challenged his inability to participate in the hearing, but the appeals court has not yet issued a ruling. Some criticized this as a threat to prosecutorial independence.
The imbalanced caseload in the high-risk courts has also caused major delays. There have reportedly been no new transitional justice cases assigned to the high-risk court (“A”) that convicted Rios Montt of genocide, leaving the other existing high-risk court (“B”) over-booked. Meanwhile, Supreme Court president Josué Baquiax announced the creation of a new high-risk court (“C”) to clear up the backlog, but no further steps have been taken to either create the new tribunal or reassign cases to high-risk court “A.”
Growing Public Discontent about Corruption
Meanwhile the public outrage at corruption scandals is continuing with Guatemalans clamoring for President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation; his term is due to end January 14, 2016. Civil society groups also filed suit on Sunday, seeking a criminal investigation of the president in connection with the social security corruption scandal.
For the sixth week in a row, tens of thousands gathered on Saturday to condemn governmental theft and demand reform. Among other things, Guatemalans are demanding electoral reforms to ban private funding for political parties.
The series of high-profile charges in recent weeks has also highlighted further concerns about judicial conflicts of interest and demonstrated widespread public support for prosecutorial independence. This may have ramifications for armed conflict cases, where victims have been waiting decades for justice in long-thwarted investigations.