GUATEMALA CITY — Judges in the landmark genocide trial of a former Guatemalan dictator asked the country's Constitutional Court to decide if the proceedings should continue, as a move to annul the case brought an international outcry that justice be served in the Central American country's long and bloody civil war.
The tribunal handling the trial, which advocates proceeding with the case, said it won't accept another judge's ruling that the trial of Efrain Rios Montt should start over at a point before charges were filed. The announcement Friday by Tribunal President Yasmin Barrios prompted a standing ovation in the courtroom, with shouts of "Justice! Justice!"
The Constitutional Court has 10 days to rule on the dispute.
Rios Montt, 86, is accused of overseeing the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he headed from March 23, 1982, to Aug. 8, 1983, as part of a U.S.-backed "scorched earth" campaign aimed at wiping out support for leftist guerrillas.
He turned his back to the cheering crowd. "We have to wait and see what the Constitutional Court says," he told The Associated Press.
The trial had been nearing closing arguments on Thursday when Judge Carol Patricia Flores spoke up.
Flores had handled the case in its pre-trial stage, was recused in February 2012, then reinstated last week by the Constitutional Court. She ruled that all actions taken in the case since she was first asked to step down are now null, sending the trial back to square one.
The move caused an international outcry, with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay registering her concern, a spokesman said.
"This is a blow to the numerous victims of the atrocities committed during Guatemala's civil war who have been waiting more than 30 years for justice to be done," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Friday. International groups including the Open Society Justice Initiative, the International Center for Transitional Justice, Center for Justice and International Law and the Washington Office on Latin America, urged that that the trial continue.
The nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch said the suspension of the trial raises serious concerns about victims' access to justice.
"For years, the Rios Montt case and others like it have been delayed by dilatory maneuvers and acts of intimidation against victims and justice officials alike," said Reed Brody, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, who monitored the start of the trial. "The surprise decision to suspend the trial raises serious concerns that victims will be forced to repeat the heart-wrenching process of recounting the horrific abuses they suffered at the hands of security forces."
Prosecutor Orlando Lopez agreed with the tribunal's move to seek a ruling from the Constitutional Court about Flores' move to suspend the case, saying "we can't put the victims who have already testified at risk."
Flores' ruling was a surprise move to halt what outside observers had considered a professional trial carried out under due process of international law in a country known for its corrupt and incompetent justice system.
A U.N. truth commission said state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the killings and human rights violations that it documented during the 36-year civil war, committed mostly against indigenous Maya. Yet until now, only low- or middle-level officials have been prosecuted for a war that ended in 1996.
Rios Montt is the most important official by far to go on trial, along with his former head of intelligence, Jose Sanchez.
Many speculated that Flores' ruling was politically motivated in a much-disputed trial, the first genocide case against a former president in Latin America. In weeks of testimony from victims, soldiers and experts, even current President Otto Perez Molina had been implicated in the massacres.
"We believe there are other factors that have violated this process," said Daniel Pascual of the United Peasants Committee.
Defense lawyers for Rios Montt stormed out of the court room on Thursday, arguing that the trial is illegal and needs to go back to the pre-trial phase as Flores ruled.
The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a U.N.-sanctioned prosecution team created to improve the justice system, will initiate a legal case against Flores, possibly for malfeasance, said Francisco Dall'Anese, a former Costa Rican attorney general who heads the commission.
"If yesterday was a dark day, today the court has rescued the majesty of the judiciary," Dall'Anese said.
The Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu also supported the tribunal's position to continue with the trial.
"We will ask the Inter-American Court for Human Rights for precautionary measures to guarantee the life and physical safety of each of the witnesses," Menchu said.
The court has heard the harrowing testimony of dozens of people who survived the military offensive. The trial against Rios Montt started in March after courts solved more than a 100 complaints and injunctions filed by the defense.