Ríos Montt Back on the Docket

10/11/2017 01:10 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2017

Guatemala Genocide Trial to Start 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.

Grafitti, #YesThereWasGenocide. Guatemala City.
Grafitti, #YesThereWasGenocide. Guatemala City.

Both men were first 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. Ten days later, in a highly controversial ruling, the Constitutional Court partially suspended the proceedings, effectively nullifying the verdict. Several attempts to relaunch the proceedings have faltered.

Special Proceedings for Ríos Montt

The new genocide trial will be heard by High Risk Tribunal B. The proceedings will be split into two distinct parts. Ríos Montt will not be present in the courtroom, since he has been found to suffer from dementia. As a result, the court has applied special provisions to his case. The public will not be allowed to observe the proceedings, Ríos Montt is not required to be present, 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 argued that legally, Rodríguez Sánchez must be prosecuted in an open and public hearing. The High Risk Tribunal B convened on October 3 —more than a year after the First Court of Appeals ruling— to notify the parties that since the special provisions cannot be applied to Rodríguez Sánchez, two separate trials against the defendants would begin on October 13.

Survivors and relatives of victims from the Ixil region at the January 2015 failed retrial against Ríos Montt.
Jo-Marie Burt
Survivors and relatives of victims from the Ixil region at the January 2015 failed retrial against Ríos Montt.

This has the Attorney General’s Office and human rights lawyers who represent the victims scrambling. In the original proceedings, 100 survivors and family members of victims testified, as did more than two dozen expert witnesses. It is time-consuming and costly to mobilize and protect witnesses in complex cases such as this.

The trial is 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 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.

Human Rights Lawyers Seek to Restore 2013 Verdict

Last May, 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 ruling partially suspending the genocide proceedings resulted in the de facto nullification of the verdict. CALDH claims that the ruling is illegal and says the magistrates are guilty of prevarication. They would like to see the 2013 verdict, which they view as still valid, restored. As of yet, no action has been taken on this complaint. One of the magistrates, 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.

*An earlier version of this article originally appeared on International Justice Monitor.

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