A retrial of former Guatemalan head of state Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity appeared to become increasingly unlikely yesterday. Doctors testified before the high-risk court overseeing the proceedings that the octogenarian defendant has dementia and other health problems.
Rios Montt and his co-accused, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, are facing retrial related to the deaths, rape, torture and forced displacement of thousands of Mayan Ixiles during the peak of violence in Guatemala’s 36-year long internal conflict. On May 10, 2013, another high-risk trial court convicted Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity, while Rodriguez Sanchez was acquitted on all charges. Ten days later, however, the Constitutional Court annulled the verdict and ordered a retrial.
Early on the morning of August 18, a few curious onlookers waited on the street near the court’s main entrance. Security measures to enter the premises have tightened considerably since a gun-fight in the area on July 28 wounded three. The courtroom, usually packed, was quiet. Among the few observers was a representative of the High Commissioner Office for Human Rights in Guatemala, Alberto Brunori.
He and others looked on as a multidisciplinary team of experts provided the court with findings from a court-ordered, eight-day medical evaluation of Rios Montt. As the hearing commenced, the court gave the parties one hour to review the experts’ written reports. Then the experts proceeded to explain their findings to the judges.
Psychiatrist Walter Rinze, a doctor at the national psychiatric hospital, concluded from the evaluation that Rios Montt suffers from vascular dementia, which is irreversible and will continue to worsen. He also noted that Rios Montt’s capacities to hear and see are considerably reduced, and that he has trouble understanding complex situations and situating himself in time and space.
A Mexican psychiatric expert engaged by the civil party Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), Jorge De La Peña Martínez, told the court that a medicine previously administered to the defendant was inappropriate and potentially life-threatening.
The national hospital’s head cardiologist, Edgar Rolando Rodriguez, testified that the former general suffers from hypertension, that the drugs given to him do not successfully control his high blood pressure, and that a more appropriate treatment could have slowed down the degenerative process. Further, Doctor Rodriguez concluded that Rios Montt has an aneurysm, meaning that any stressful situation could raise his blood pressure to dangerous and potentially fatal levels. The doctor also declared that due to his age and his mental state, changing Rios Montt’s environment would amount to a highly stressful situation.
After hearing the medical conclusions, Rios Montt’s defense attorneys asked the court to close the criminal prosecution against their client, arguing that a proper defense would be impossible because Rios Montt lacks full use of his mental capacities, and that his cardiac state made his future attendance in court potentially lethal.
For their part, prosecutors requested that the court accommodate the defendant’s lack of fitness for trial through application of special procedural rules. These would include the appointment of a guardian, the conduct of the trial behind closed doors, and a declaration of security measures instead of a criminal sanction. They also requested that the court order the appointment of specialized doctors to ensure an appropriate treatment to the defendant, arguing that there was evidence of medical negligence from his current doctor, Mario Bolaños.
The prosecution also asked the court to split the case and schedule a date for the opening of the retrial against Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Rodriguez Sanchez’s attorneys, recalling that their client had already been judged and acquitted in 2013, indicated that they would challenge a retrial because it would amount to double jeopardy in violation of Rodriguez Sanchez’s rights.
Edgar Pérez, attorney for the civil party Association for Justice and Reconciliation, agreed with prosecutors and stated that even if age had overtaken the former general, the criminal prosecution against him must not simply be closed. He said that victims cannot forget, and that the process of justice should not serve impunity.
The judges concluded the session by scheduling a hearing for next Tuesday, August 25. On that day they will render decisions on the matter of Rios Montt’s retrial, and the question of continued proceedings against his former head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.