Awaiting an Uncertain Retrial, Rios Montt Remains Center Stage

Since his trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt’s rule has remained a hotly disputed matter in Guatemala.  Again last week, his legacy and the effort to prosecute him in relation to the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Ixiles between March 1982 and August 1983 continued to ripple through the country’s courts and politics.

Hearing in the Case against Rios Montt’s Prosecutor

On Friday, August 7, there was a hearing in the case against attorney Orlando Lopez, the head of the Attorney General’s Office’s special unit for human rights cases.  Lopez was the lead prosecutor in the 2013 trial of Rios Montt and his co-accused, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.

In February, Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, president of the Foundation Against Terrorism and a son of Rios Montt’s former interior minister, lodged a criminal complaint against Lopez, accusing him of various crimes, including criminal association, abuse of authority, and accepting bribes.  Mendez Ruiz based his accusation on statements Lopez made during an event in Madrid, Spain, commemorating the one-year anniversary of the May 10, 2013 guilty verdict against Rios Montt, (which was subsequently overturned by the Constitutional Court).   At the event, Lopez had provided a history of the case and related efforts to end the climate of impunity for grave crimes in Guatemala.

Preliminary judge Darwin Porras accepted the complaint at the end of February and transferred it to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.  Further, Judge Porras authorized Mendez Ruiz to take part in the process as a civil party.   Since then, the Attorney General’s Office has presented no indictment, and Lopez has not faced any criminal charges.

Last week, Mendez Ruiz requested a hearing foreseen in Guatemalan criminal procedure, in which a pre-trial judge may intervene to decide matters of dispute between the Attorney General’s Office and the civil party to a case.  Mendez Ruiz insisted on the review and requested that the attorney general investigate Lopez’s bank accounts to determine whether his assets are commensurate with his monthly income and whether he had received money from a foreign party. During Friday’s hearing, representatives of the Attorney General’s Office argued that investigating Lopez’s bank accounts would be pointless and constitute an unjustified violation of his right to privacy. Prosecutors also told the judge that investigations are ongoing in relation to the complaint, although they did not intend to comply with some of Mendez Ruiz’s requests.  Among these, prosecutors said they had no intention of ordering a psychological evaluation of Lopez to determine whether he represents a threat to society, or investigating whether he has any association with subversive groups.

In April, again at the request of Mendez Ruiz, Judge Porras agreed to extend the criminal complaint beyond Lopez, to the entire human rights prosecution unit, which oversees cases related to Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.  As a civil party, Mendez Ruiz requested that the Attorney General’s Office probe whether members of the unit support totalitarian ideologies that could put at risk the constitutional rights of individuals under investigation.  At Friday’s hearing, the Attorney General’s Office also argued that such an investigation would have no pertinence.

On the end of the hearing, Judge Porras quickly resolved that because the Attorney General’s Office is independent, as a judge he could not interfere with the investigation. He did however decide to appoint a different investigator to take charge of the case.

Orlando Lopez was allowed to attend Friday’s hearing, but was not given the right to intervene in it. On April 13, Judge Porras imposed a travel ban against Lopez during a hearing that neither he nor a representative from the Attorney General’s Office was allowed to attend. On June 26, an appeals court unanimously rejected the travel ban and ordered Judge Porras to schedule a new hearing that would comply with due process principles and the right to defense. That hearing, at which interim measures and the progress of the investigative process will be discussed, is now scheduled for August 19.

Rios Montt’s Defense Appeals Decision on Recusal of Trial Judges

Last week, Rios Montt’s defense lawyers brought their motion to recuse the trial judges in his possible retrial to the high-risk appeals court.  Defense attorneys for Rios Montt first presented a recusal motion against the trial judges at a July 23 hearing of the trial chamber.

The defense attorneys accused the judges of bias after the court ordered the defendant to be transferred to national psychiatric hospital Federico Mora to undergo a medical evaluation. The court rejected the recusal motion.  A series of other legal proceedings culminated last week in Rios Montt’s being sent to a private hospital for evaluation, but the question of the judges’ recusal has yet to be settled.

Rios Montt’s Daughter to Run for President

Finally, in a divided decision last week, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of Rios Montt’s daughter, Zury Rios, clearing the way for her to run for president in September’s national elections.

In July, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal initially rejected Zury Rios’s candidacy.  They did so on the basis of a provision in Guatemala’s Constitution (article 186) that prohibits any person from assuming the presidency or vice presidency who is closely related to a former head of state who came to power through a coup.  However, on July 22, the Supreme Court ordered the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to accept Rios’s candidacy. It was this decision that the Electoral Tribunal appealed to the Constitutional Court.

The majority rejected the appeal presented by the Electoral Tribunal, arguing that the institution lacked standing to bring a case before the Constitutional Court because none of its constitutional guarantees had been infringed. In their dissenting opinion, Judges Gloria Porras and Mauro Chacon stated that the Electoral Tribunal is the sole institution competent to adjudicate electoral matters.