Appeals Court Upholds Suspension of Ríos Montt Genocide Trial

The retrial trial against former head of state General José Efraín Ríos Montt and his former chief of intelligence (“G2”) General Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil population has been definitively suspended.

The First Court of Appeals (Sala Primera de Apelaciones) has upheld its earlier provisional ruling granting an amparo (a protective measure similar to a writ of habeas corpus) presented by the civil parties to the case, the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) and the Justice and Reconciliation Association (AJR), claiming that the proceedings violated Guatemalan law. CALDH and AJR argued that the proceedings were illegal and should be split into two separate trials.

The provisional ruling handed down by the First Court of Appeals on May 6 upheld the CALDH-AJR appeal and resulted in a suspension of the genocide trial, which began on March 19, after many long delays. This definitive ruling confirms that earlier decision. Though this represents a further delay in seeing justice done in the genocide case, the civil party organizations argued it was necessary given that conducting a trial under an illegal format would have inevitably resulted in a mistrial or a suspension of the proceedings.

The civil parties were appealing a decision of High Risk Tribunal “B. ”As previously reported, the tribunal determined that special provisions would be adopted to continue the genocide trial once it was determined that Ríos Montt, who is 89 years of age, was mentally unfit. Under these special provisions, Ríos Montt would not be compelled to be present at the proceedings, and he would be represented in court by a guardian. The hearings would be closed to the public and the press, and even if found guilty, no criminal sanction would be applied. The court also ruled that Rodríguez Sánchez would be tried in the same proceedings, in the name of judicial efficiency and to avoid retraumatization of the victims.

The civil parties argued that the inclusion of Rodríguez Sánchez under the special provisions violated Guatemalan law as well as the rights of victims to a public hearing. They tried to prevent the start of the trial under such conditions, but on August 25, the High Risk Tribunal “B” ruled that the proceedings should go forward with both defendants. This newest ruling nullifies that August 25, 2015 decision and all the hearings that took place after that date.

Rodríguez Sánchez, who has the most to lose from this decision, has filed an appeal before the Constitutional Court. Rodríguez Sánchez was acquitted in the 2013 genocide verdict and was subsequently freed from the military hospital where he was being held. However, after the Constitutional Court partially suspended the hearings and vacated the verdict, Rodríguez Sánchez was placed back under house arrest. Ríos Montt has sided with the civil parties in this matter.

The other individuals charged in the Maya Ixil genocide case, Generals Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, and Héctor Mario López Fuentes, died before formal charges could be brought against them. Retired military officer Luis Enrique Mendoza García, the “G3” director of operations of the Chief of Staff who was in charge of military operations in the Ixil area, is still wanted in the case and remains at large.

As a result of this ruling, two new tribunals must be constituted to hear the two genocide cases. One possibility is that one of the trials will be heard by the High Risk Tribunal “B” with Judge Jeannette Valdez presiding, along with two new judges. Judge Valdez was recused from hearing the case in 2015 after the defense for Ríos Montt charged that she could not be impartial because she had written her thesis on genocide. (This ruling has been appealed.) It is likely that the other trial will be heard by the relatively new High Risk Tribunal “C.”

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.