International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

Guatemalan President Could Face Impeachment While Uncertainty Continues to Surround Genocide Trial

Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina is again on the verge of facing prosecution in connection with recent corruption scandals that have shaken the country. A prior decision from the country’s highest court would have spared him. However, the Constitutional Court’s decision last week reinstated a congressional committee that recommended the president’s immunity be removed.

Last Wednesday, a majority of the Constitutional Court annulled its June 18 decision, which at the time interrupted the work of an investigative committee convened by Guatemala’s Congress. Following the court’s decision, Congress appointed a new member of the investigative committee, Salvador Baldizon, after the prior head had resigned, facing his own corruption allegations.

By Friday, the investigative committee had released its report, which concluded that the president should lose his immunity and face prosecution for corruption. If two-thirds of the Congress endorses the report’s recommendations, President Pérez Molina will face criminal prosecution.

This would be the first time a sitting Guatemalan head of state would face either corruption charges or impeachment. It also follows the resignation of the vice president and interior minister in recent weeks.

A series of high-profile cases have upended Guatemala’s political establishment in recent months and seen tens of thousands of Guatemalans take to the streets, a sight not seen for years in Guatemala. Currently, prosecutors have charged dozens in six major corruption cases – concerning the national police, the Congress, judicial authorities, customs authorities, and the social service administration – with support from the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). President Pérez Molina faces criminal investigation in connection with two of these cases.

Meanwhile, the historic genocide trial of former Guatemalan head of state Efrain Rios Montt continues on a roller-coaster of uncertainty. Rios Montt was convicted in 2013, but the conviction was annulled days later. Efforts to restart the trial have been consistently thwarted by procedural, political, and other obstacles. A new trial is scheduled to start later this month on July 23 but faces numerous hurdles, including the health of both Rios Montt and his co-defendant, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, former head of military intelligence.

Rios Montt’s health is reportedly deteriorating, affecting his mental capacity. The court has left open the possibility of the presence of the former head of state through video conference, but his defense attorneys argue that his physical presence is obligatory. Rodriguez Sanchez is also due to undergo knee surgery, and it is unclear whether his health will be sufficiently recovered for a late July trial date.

On June 24, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), which represents the victims, challenged one of the judges slated for the panel – Judge Jaime Delmar Gonzalez – on the ground of bias. CALDH asserted that Judge Gonzalez is friends with one of Ríos Montt’s defense attorneys, a charge Judge Gonzalez denies.

Judge Gonzalez was himself appointed to the court following the removal of another judge – Jeannette Valdes. Rios Montt forced the removal of Judge Valdes on January 5, suspending the last scheduled retrial.

Rios Montt’s attorneys are also challenging his prosecution on the ground that he should benefit from a 1986 amnesty. The issue has been outstanding for nearly two years, after a divided Constitutional Court reopened the question in October 2013. More than 60 judges have refused to hear the case and others were forced to step down because of charges of bias.

Both Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Mayans between March 1982 and August 1983.

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