Status of Genocide Trial Remains Uncertain
A court-ordered psychiatric evaluation of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt to determine his fitness for retrial was halted at the last minute on Saturday, July 25. While further advances in the genocide trial remain blocked, a high-risk appeals court upheld the guilty verdict of a former police commander on charges of crimes against humanity and homicide in the case of the 1980 Spanish embassy fire which killed protesters and diplomats. Meanwhile, the bid by Rios Montt’s daughter to run for president in forthcoming elections continues to face a court challenge, and opponents of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) rallied in front of the Supreme Court last week.
Last Thursday, July 23, a Guatemalan court ordered former dictator Efrain Rios Montt’s transfer to a national mental hospital for a week-long evaluation to establish whether his mental health allows for a retrial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in relation with the death of thousands of Mayan Ixiles in the 1980s. In doing so, the court rejected a prior medical report prepared by the National Forensic Institute, which found Rios Montt to be senile with no hope of improvement. The court found that the evaluation had not been ordered by the competent court in the case, and that it was improperly conducted.
The court ordered Rios Montt to be transferred on Saturday morning, but moments before the scheduled time, defense attorneys announced that they had obtained a court order to suspend the transfer. An appeals court—typically tasked with appeals related to crimes against women—ordered a last-minute suspension of his transfer pending determination by a judge and forensic expert within 24 hours whether the transfer would endanger Rios Montt’s life or liberty, or risk subjecting him to ill-treatment. No further updates were available as of Monday morning.
The particular appellate court that made the ruling is the same court that confirmed sanctions against Judge Yassmin Barrios brought by the Guatemalan lawyers’ association. Barrios presided over the first trial and conviction of Rios Montt in 2013. The Constitutional Court ultimately rejected the appellate court’s ruling against Barrios. In a further twist, one member of the appeals chamber signing the order to suspend Rios Montt’s transfer on Saturday was Judge Noé Ventura Loyo, previously a congressman elected with the support of the Guatemala Republican Front, a political party founded by Rios Montt.
All preparations had been made for Rios Montt’s transfer to a unit prepared to receive the former general at the Federico Mora Hospital, and his supporters waited for him with banners denying genocide in Guatemala. Meanwhile, defense attorneys, prosecutors, police, Red Cross officials, and observers from the human rights ombudsman’s office all gathered at Rios Montt’s house.
Conditions at the Federico Mora Hospital, once seen as a model for psychiatric health treatment in Latin America, began to decline as a result of a state order in 1982—when Rios Montt was head of state—which changed the focus of the hospital and increased the number of patients beyond capacity. The hospital has since gained a reputation as the worst psychiatric hospital in the country.
Prosecutors and civil parties are currently reviewing the order and determining what action to take.
Rios Montt and his then-head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, stand charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for their role in the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Ixiles between March 1982 and August 1983, recalled as the bloodiest period of the 36-year civil war. Following a first trial, Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison on May 10, 2013, while Rodriguez Sanchez was acquitted. The verdict was annulled 10 days later by the majority of the Constitutional Court and a new trial was ordered. The retrial has however been stymied by obstacles.
Spanish embassy verdict upheld
On Friday, the high-risk appeals court confirmed the guilty verdict against Pedro Garcia Arredondo for his responsibility in the Spanish embassy fire that killed 37 on January 30, 1980. In dismissing the defense appeal, the court confirmed that evidence in the case had been objectively analyzed. Garcia Arredondo was found guilty of homicide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 90 years in prison by a Guatemalan national court on January 19, 2015. He was the former head of “Command 6”—a special investigation unit—of the now-defunct National Police.
Garcia Arredondo was already serving a 70-year sentence rendered in August 2012 for the enforced disappearance of university student Edgar Saenz Calito, who was last seen on June 9, 1981.
Zury Rios presidential candidacy
Rios Montt’s daughter, Zury Rios, is pressing her legal case to be allowed to run for president in national elections on September 6. Article 186 of Guatemala’s Constitution prohibits any person from assuming the presidency or vice presidency who is a close relative of a former head of state who came to power through a coup. On these grounds, the supreme electoral tribunal initially denied Zury Rios’s candidacy, but on July 22, the Supreme Court ruled in her favor on appeal and ordered the supreme electoral tribunal to accept her candidacy. On Friday, the electoral tribunal appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, citing the constitutional prohibition on such candidacies.
Up to 5,000 protesters gathered in front of Guatemala’s Supreme Court building on Wednesday night to protest against CICIG. The protest was organized by the opposition Lider political party after, on July 15, CICIG and the attorney general’s office linked its vice-presidential candidate Edgar Barquin to an alleged money laundering network. It was the latest in a series of revelations by CICIG and the attorney general’s office over two months linking Lider candidates to corruption cases. Representatives of Lider, which is favored to win the September 6 national elections, have responded by decrying a “conspiracy” to prevent the party’s victory, and accused CICIG of “judicializing” politics.
On July 20, the Association of Jurists for the Nation, led by a supporter of Lider presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon, presented an impeachment request against CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana. The request accused them of a breach of duties, and accused them of failing to investigate candidates from other political parties. Speaking at Wednesday’s protest, vice-presidential candidate Barquin warned against a coup d’etat and foreign invasion. Protesters called for free elections and honest and transparent justice. The days leading up to the protest were marked by an anti-CICIG media campaign.
CICIG and the attorney general’s office appear, however, to enjoy substantial support from civil society organizations, as well as broad public support. For a fourteenth consecutive week, there are large popular demonstrations against corruption, with participants thanking CICIG and the attorney general, and the Líder protest was far smaller than the political party had predicted.