After several false starts, the retrial proceedings against former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt and his intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez in the Maya Ixil genocide case began on March 16, 2016. The hearing last Wednesday started despite controversy about the legality of the proceedings raised by the civil parties in the case.
The case is being heard before High Risk Tribunal “B,” presided over by Judge María Elena Castellanos. Ríos Montt was not present due to health conditions, while his co-accused, Rodríguez Sánchez, was present. Victims from the Ixil region were present, as were international observers and members of the press. However, in keeping with an earlier determination that this was a special closed-door proceeding, the presiding judge ordered the general public and the press removed from the courtroom.
The original genocide trial, presided over by Judge Yassmin Barrios of High Risk Tribunal “A,” started on March 19, 2013 and concluded on May 10, 2013 with a guilty verdict against Ríos Montt and an acquittal for Rodríguez Sánchez. Ríos Montt, found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, was sentenced to 80 years in prison. However, just ten days later, the Constitutional Court ruled that Ríos Montt’s due process rights had been violated and invalidated the proceedings that took place after April 19, effectively vacating the judgment.
National and international organizations challenged this ruling on both substantive and procedural grounds. Substantively, critics charged that the alleged due-process violation had been remedied and in any case the decision to overturn a conviction in a case involving grave crimes was disproportionate to the alleged violation. Procedurally, critics charged that the Constitutional Court violated the normal procedural rules of appeal by emitting a decision before the case went to the Court of Appeals.
The Constitutional Court ruling resulted in the case being transferred to a new tribunal, High Risk Tribunal “B” in October 2013, which fixed the trial restart date at January 5, 2015. However, the retrial did not take place at that time. On that occasion, the defense lawyers demanded recusal of the presiding judge, Janeth Valdez, claiming that because she wrote her dissertation about genocide meant that she could not be impartial in the case. In the January 5, 2015 hearing, Judge Valdez presented a series of arguments rejecting the recusal motion, but the other two judges on the tribunal ruled in favor of the recusal, aborting the proceedings.
Several other attempts at restarting the genocide trial proceedings have also faltered. In addition, Ríos Montt was declared mentally incompetent, so the tribunal ruled that the proceedings would be held behind closed doors and, if convicted, no sentence would be applied to Ríos Montt. The Attorney General’s office and the civil parties have filed petitions arguing that given the decision to hold closed-door hearings for Ríos Montt, the case against Rodríguez Sánchez should be separated from the case, because the public and the victims have the right to hear those proceedings in open court. Final decisions on these and other procedural issues have not yet been made. In a previous hearing, the tribunal ruled it would not launch the retrial until all legal motions had been resolved, leading observers to assume that the proceedings on March 16 would also be suspended.
The surprising restart of the genocide trial
Thus, it surprised many observers when Judge Castellanos declared in the March 16 hearing that the genocide retrial should start. Civil party lawyers Francisco Vivir, representing the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), and Edgar Pérez, representing the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), coincided in arguing that the current proceedings were procedurally flawed. They said even though the tribunal ordered a special, closed-door trial in the case of Ríos Montt, including special security measures, this was not appropriate in the case of Rodríguez Sánchez. They argued that in the case of Rodríguez Sánchez, the proceedings should be separated and made open to the public and to the media; otherwise it would represent a due process violation.
Vivar also noted that the civil parties had filed a legal motion to reinstate Judge Valdez, but a final decision remains pending. In addition, three other motions filed by the defense are also still pending, including a recusal motion against Judge Valdez, another recusal motion against two other judges, and a motion requesting the cessation of penal action against Ríos Montt. Pérez was emphatic in stating that continuing closed-door special proceedings against Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez would amout to due process violations and infringe on procedural guarantees. He stated his concern that such violations could lead to further challenges to the legality of the proceedings and further traumatize the victims in the case.
Defense counsel for Ríos Montt, Jaime Hernández Girón, expressed his agreement with the arguments presented by the civil parties, saying that the proceedings against Ríos Montt should be separated from those against Rodríguez Sánchez and demanded that pending legal motions be resolved before initiating the public trial. Defense counsel for Rodríguez Sánchez, Mario Federico Hernández, rejected such arguments, saying that from his client’s point of view, it was acceptable to move forward with the joint proceedings against the two co-accused.
Presiding Judge Castellanos categorically rejected the arguments of the civil parties, at one point even accusing the civil parties’ lawyers of engaging in “malicious litigation” (litigio malicioso) in order to unreasonably delay the proceedings. She also justified the prosecution of the two co-accused in the same trial as necessary to avoid forcing the victims to testify in two different trials, which she said could retraumatize them.
A tense exchange between the civil parties’ lawyers and the presiding judge ensued, as lawyers Pérez and Vivanco insisted in pushing forward their claim that these proceedings violated basic due process rights of the victims, and Judge Castellanos rejected their motions to cease the proceedings. The judge then ordered the press removed from the courtroom. Ríos Montt’s lawyer also requested that international observers be removed from the courtroom, but the judge ruled that they could stay because they were accompanying the victims. The judge also stated that photography or recording of the proceedings would not be allowed.
From this point on, trial observers and members of the press were forced to vacate the courtroom.
According to our sources, after prosecutors read the formal accusation against the two defendants, prosecutor Hilda Pineda García presented the first documentary evidence, the military document known as “Operation Sofía,” and asked for it to be read aloud in court in its entirety. According to the National Security Archive, Operation Sofía contains 359 pages of original planning documents, directives, telegrams, maps, and hand-written patrol reports sent to and from the Army General Staff (Estado Mayor General del Ejército), the Commander of the Guatemalan Airborne Troops, who planned and ran the operation, and commanders in the field. Contained within this document, according to the National Security Archive:
[I]s the initial order to launch the operation issued on July 8, 1982, by Army Chief of Staff Héctor Mario López Fuentes. The records make clear that ‘Operation Sofía’ was executed as part of the military strategy of Guatemala’s de facto president, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, under the command and control of the country’s senior military officers, including then Vice Minister of Defense Gen. Mejía Víctores.
Hearings continued on March 17 and 18 but were also closed to the public and the press. Our sources confirm that Operation Sofía documents continued to be read aloud in court on the 17th and that two expert witnesses were called to testify on the 18th.
Jo-Marie Burt is an associate professor of political science and director of Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada contributed to the research and writing of this report.