Appeals Court’s Decision Suspends Genocide Trial

Last week, a Guatemalan appeals court suspended the re-opening of the joint retrial of former head of state Efrain Rios Montt and his then-head of military intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, which had been scheduled for January 11, 2016.  The decision, related to the transparency of proceedings against Rodriguez Sanchez, could pave the way for separate trials for the two men.  Both face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for their alleged role in the deaths of at least 1,771 indigenous people in the Ixil region during Rios Montt’s rule from March 1982 to August 1983.

On Thursday October 15, the appeals chamber accepted arguments presented by the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) and the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) – civil parties in the case – against the high-risk court’s decision from August 25, 2015. In that decision, the court declared that former dictator Rios Montt no longer has the mental capacity to face a new trial. However, the majority of the three-judge panel still decided to send him to trial, albeit under special procedures that would preclude formal criminal sanction in the event of a guilty verdict.  The special procedures also stipulate that the trial shall be held behind closed doors – which is the issue that was challenged before the appeals court. Victims would be allowed to attend hearings, but media and observers would have no access to the courtroom.

One possible alternative would be to split the trial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez into two separate trials, with only Rios Montt’s held behind closed doors. In the first-instance decision, judges refused the prosecution’s request to split the trial against the co-defendants.  Thus, the accusations against Rodriguez Sanchez would also be inaccessible to the public, although his physical and mental fitness for trial has never been questioned.

The civil parties argued that trying Rodriguez Sanchez behind closed doors would infringe upon due process, and violate victims’ rights of access to justice and effective judicial protection. CALDH and AJR argued that the special procedures are meant for Rios Montt, to accommodate his mental health and respect his dignity, and that the law specifically provides that such special procedures shall be applied independently from any other trial. The parties insisted on the importance of a public trial not only for the defendant and the victims, but also for Guatemala’s population and the international community – both affected by the gravity of the crimes committed.

In its provisional ruling in favor of the civil parties, the appeals court agreed that the trial court decision could infringe fundamental rights. The appellate chamber’s decision effectively suspends the current procedures against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, but is only provisional. The court will render its final decision in the coming days.

Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez already faced trial in 2013 on the same charges. On May 10, 2013, the first instance high-risk court found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 80 years in prison, while acquitting Rodriguez Sanchez of all charges. Ten days later, in a divided decision, the constitutional court overturned the verdict on technicalities and ordered a retrial, which, after many delays, was scheduled to begin in January 2016.

Previous Co-accused in Genocide Trial Dies

On Sunday, October 18, Héctor Lopez Fuentes, who had been initially indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2011, died at the age of 85. The retired general was appointed as Rios Montt’s chief of military staff during Rios Montt’s rule, and was the first to be indicted. Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez would later join him in what became an historic case for grave crimes committed during the internal conflict. The criminal prosecution against Lopez Fuentes was suspended in 2012 after medical experts’ reports found him unfit for trial. Since then, he was kept in custody at a military hospital.

Honors for Barrios and Paz y Paz

On October 14, the Train Foundation presented its annual civil courage prize to Judge Yassmin Barrios and former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz at a ceremony in New York.  Both women played an essential role in the 2013 criminal prosecution of Efrain Rios Montt and Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. Paz y Paz, as attorney general, promoted the prosecution, while Barrios served as presiding judge on the high-risk court that heard the case. They were honored for their courage in the search for truth and justice for grave crimes committed during Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war.