Ríos Montt Genocide Trial Set to Restart on Friday

The trial against former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt and his military intelligence chief José Rodríguez Sánchez for the Maya Ixil genocide is set to restart this Friday, October 13. Both men were prosecuted in this landmark case in 2013; High Risk Tribunal A found Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 80 years in prison, while it acquitted Rodríguez Sánchez of all charges. The Constitutional Court then vacated the ruling in a highly controversial split decision that partially suspended the proceedings, effectively nullifying the verdict, even though the court did not even acknowledge that a verdict had been handed down. Several attempts to relaunch the proceedings have failed.

The genocide case will be heard by High Risk Tribunal B. Francisco Rivas, one of the lawyers representing the victims, told International Justice Monitor that the trial will be split into two distinct proceedings. This is because Ríos Montt was found to suffer from dementia, leading the court to apply special provisions to his case. The public will not be allowed to observe the proceedings, Ríos Montt is not required to be present (Montt’s legal representative, his daughter Zury Ríos, is required to be there in his place), and the trial will not result in a sentence if he is found guilty. The most recent attempt to restart the trial against both men, in March 2016, was aborted after the First Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who filed a protective measure arguing that the special provisions could not be applied to Rodríguez Sánchez. This is due to a legal requirement that he be prosecuted in an open and public hearing.

The High Risk Tribunal B convened on October 3—a year and a half after the First Court of Appeals ruling—and notified the parties that two separate trials against the defendants would begin on October 13. The closed-door proceedings against Ríos Montt will take place in the morning, while the public proceedings against Rodríguez Sánchez will take place in the afternoon. As of this writing, hearings are scheduled to take place only on Fridays. By contrast, the 2013 proceedings took place daily over the course of nearly two months, save a brief period when the trial was temporarily suspended.

The Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), which represents the victims in the genocide case, filed a complaint against the three Constitutional Court magistrates whose May 20, 2013 resolution partially suspended the genocide proceedings and resulted in the de facto nullification of the verdict. CALDH claims that the judges made an illegal ruling and are guilty of prevarication. As of yet, no action has been taken on this complaint. One of the judges, Alejandro Maldonado, who served as interim president after Otto Pérez Molina was arrested for corruption, enjoys immunity from prosecution as an elected member of the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN).

Ríos Montt also faces a second trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in the case of the Dos Erres massacre, in which 200 people were killed in December 1982.

Ríos Montt’s Defense Lawyer, Moíses Galindo, Arrested for Money Laundering

It is possible that Ríos Montt’s defense lawyers will file injunctions or other legal motions to delay the trial start date, as they have in the past. However, two members of Ríos Montt’s legal team will not be part of the case this time around. Francisco Palomo, reportedly the architect of Ríos Montt’s defense strategy, was murdered in Guatemala City on June 3, 2015. Moisés Galindo was arrested last week, on October 5, on charges of money laundering. Galindo has represented other military officers in grave crimes trials (including a retired colonel who was convicted of sexual violation and sexual slavery in the Sepur Zarco case), and represents former president Otto Pérez Molina in the co-optation of the state corruption case.

Galindo’s arrest followed an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office and the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) called Pandora’s Box. They allege that the former president of Guatemala and current mayor of Guatemala City, Álvaro Arzú, misused municipal government funds for political campaigns and created fake jobs to benefit his cronies. The charges highlight the long-rumored, obscure connections between Arzú and two members of his presidential guard, Byron Lima and Obdulio Villanueva. Lima and Villanueva were convicted for the 1998 murder of Monseñor Juan Gerardi just two days after Gerardi presented a report documenting large-scale military human rights violations during the internal armed conflict.

In addition to representing Ríos Montt and Pérez Molina, Galindo was also Lima’s lawyer. Despite being incarcerated for more than a decade, Lima—who was killed during a prison riot in July 2016—acquired immense power within the Guatemalan penitentiary system during the Pérez Molina government, allegedly with the assistance of then minister of governance Mauricio López Bonilla, another retired senior military official who is awaiting trial on corruption charges. CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office claim that Lima delivered funds he collected as part of a system of transferring inmates within the penitentiary system to Galindo, reportedly to fund the defense of senior military officials facing trial for corruption and human rights abuses.

In a surprise twist, the key witness for the prosecution is Lima’s former girlfriend and mother of one of his children, Alejandra Reyes Ochoa. Press reports say she has been providing critical testimony to the Attorney General’s Office and CICIG, including, allegedly, proof of ongoing communications between Arzú and Lima. The Attorney General’s Office and CICIG have petitioned the Supreme Court of Justice to strip Arzú of his immunity to pursue criminal charges in the case.