Court Orders Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez Retrial to Begin in January 2016

On August 25, the high-risk court overseeing proceedings against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and his then-head of military intelligence Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez ruled that a joint retrial of the men can proceed.  As a result of Rios Montt’s poor mental fitness, the trial, ordered to commence on January 11, 2016, is to be held behind closed doors.

By a majority decision, the three-judge panel found that Rios Montt lacks the mental capacity necessary to face a regular trial.  But the majority cited provisions of Guatemalan law that allow special procedures in such cases, including the appointment of a guardian to assume the defense, and conducting the trial behind closed doors. A trial under these conditions cannot result in criminal sanction, but can result in security measures, such as admission to a psychiatric institution. The special procedures are usually applied to defendants who represent a threat to society.

Further, the court’s majority ruled that the case against Rios Montt will not be separated from the case against co-defendant Rodriguez Sanchez, meaning that the latter’s trial will also be held behind closed doors. The judges argued that separating the cases could infringe the defendants’ right to a trial without unreasonable delay, and would add unjustified trial costs. Victims will be allowed to attend the trial, but there will be no access for media or national and international observers.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Sara Yoc Yoc argued that the criminal case against Rios Montt should be closed due to his lack of fitness to stand trial.

The hearing yesterday followed medical experts’ presentations to the court last week, in which they explained their findings from a medical evaluation of Rios Montt. All three psychiatrists who evaluated him agreed that the defendant suffers from vascular dementia, while cardiologists affirmed he has hypertension so severe that his future attendance in court could potentially be fatal.

Civil parties and Rios Montt’s defense attorneys both expressed dissatisfaction with the court’s rulings. Rios Montt’s defense lawyer, Jaime Hernandez, insisted that because his client was declared unfit for trial, the case should be closed. Hernandez argued that if proceedings were to commence anyway, then they should do so entirely behind closed doors, without the presence of victims.  Further, because of the inherently different nature of the proceedings, Hernandez argued that any special process against his client should be separate from a criminal retrial of Rodriguez Sanchez.

The two civil parties in the case―the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) and the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH)―joined Rios Montt’s attorneys in insisting that each co-accused should be tried separately due to the different natures of the proceedings. CALDH attorney Francisco Vivar argued that the crimes for which Rodriguez Sanchez is charged are of international interest, and that Guatemala’s population and the world needed to know the truth about what happened during the conflict.  Further, he argued, public proceedings would be important to ensuring the non-repetition of similar atrocities, while refusing to hold public proceedings would have negative consequences.

Victims’ relatives filled the courtroom for the hearing.  Rodriguez Sanchez’s wife, son, and daughter occupied the first row, although the defendant’s health once more prevented him from attending the hearing.  A quiet atmosphere prevailed, in contrast to events in the courtroom one floor below, where media flocked to a hearing where Roxana Baldetti, Guatemala’s former vice president, faces corruption charges.

Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez are facing retrial for genocide and crimes against humanity related to the commission of various massacres that led to the deaths of at least 1,771 Mayan Ixiles between March 1982 and August 1983, considered to be the peak of violence of Guatemala’s 36-year long civil war.  In a first trial in 2013, quickly overturned by the Constitutional Court, Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, while Rodriguez Sanchez was acquitted on all counts.

Although the retrial is now scheduled to begin in January, that may not be the last word.  Both the prosecution and defense are expected to appeal yesterday’s ruling.