Genocide Trial Suspended; Plaintiffs Claim Proceedings Illegal

The second genocide trial against José Efráin Ríos Montt and José Manuel Rodríguez Sánchez, which started on March 16 behind closed doors and amidst controversy, was abruptly interrupted this past Wednesday after an appeals court granted a provisional amparo (protective measure similar to a writ of habeas corpus) filed by the civil parties representing the victims in the case, the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) and the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH). The amparo filed by the plaintiffs claims that the proceedings are illegal under Guatemalan law.

Last August, after Ríos Montt was diagnosed with dementia, High Risk Tribunal B, which oversees the case, ruled that he lacked the mental capacity to face a regular trial. But, citing Guatemalan law that allows special provisions in such cases, including the appointment of a guardian to assume the defense and conducting the trial behind closed doors, the court determined that the proceeding could continue. A trial under these conditions cannot result in criminal sanction, but security measures, such as admission to a psychiatric institution, may be adopted.

In addition, the court determined that the case against Rodríguez Sánchez would not be separated from the special proceedings established for Ríos Montt. The judges argued that in the name of efficiency, the proceedings should not be separated and set a trial date for January 11, 2016. The court stated that requiring victims to testify in two different proceedings could lead to retraumatization.

The plaintiffs argued that this violates Guatemalan law and asked for the proceedings to be separated. They contended that Rodríguez Sánchez cannot be prosecuted alongside Ríos Montt because it contradicts the rights of the victims and the community at large to an open, public trial. The plaintiffs were granted an initial injunction ordering the separation of the proceedings, but this was later overturned.

On January 11, the judges decided to postpone the start of the trial, saying they preferred to wait until all remaining amparos and appeals had been ruled on. Nevertheless, on March 16, with several amparos still unresolved, the court ruled that the proceedings would commence. The judges then ordered the general public and the media to evacuate the courtroom. Victims and those accompanying them for security or translation were allowed to remain in the courtroom. The proceedings advanced behind closed doors in the ensuing weeks, with little media coverage.

In an unusual step, the court traveled to Nebaj, Quiché, the epicenter of Ixil territory, in order to hear the testimony of victims who are too old or infirm to travel to Guatemala City. At least two of the nearly 100 victims who testified in the 2013 genocide trial have passed away.

At a hearing yesterday before the First Appeals Court, the civil party lawyers outlined again their arguments in favor of the separation of the case against Rodríguez Sánchez and called upon the appeal court to definitively grant the appeal. Defense counsel for Ríos Montt stated his agreement with the plaintiffs. Rodríguez Sánchez’s lawyer vigorously challenged the appeal to separate the proceedings and accused the plaintiffs of violating his client’s rights. He also stated that the right to a public trial was not absolute.

Though Ríos Montt was found guilty in the first genocide trial in 2013, Rodríguez Sánchez was acquitted. When that ruling was vacated by action of the Constitutional Court, Rodríguez Sánchez was returned to house arrest and found himself again facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in relation to the deaths of 1,771 Maya Ixiles between March 1982 and August 1983.

The appeals court is required by law to rule on this matter within three business days. A group of international organizations presented an amicus curie in this matter supporting the plaintiffs’ appeal to separate the two cases.

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.