On Monday, January 5, the long-awaited retrial of 88-year-old General Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala City was once again suspended. The presiding judge, Irma Jeannette Valdés Rodas, was disqualified from the tribunal by her two peers in a two-to-one vote.
The defense argued her 2004 doctoral dissertation, “Criteria for the better application of the crime of genocide,” would affect her judgement, and judges Sara Griselda Yoc Yoc and María Eugenia Castellanos Cruz de Delgado concurred. New judges and a fresh court date will be set by the Guatemalan criminal system, further delaying a case that has been pending resolution since the country’s highest court ordered a retrial in May 2013.
Ríos Montt, de facto president of Guatemala between 1982 and 1983, will be tried for genocide alongside José Mauricio Rodríguez, a former army intelligence officer who was previously acquitted of these same charges in the trial thrown out by the Constitutional Court.
Early Monday morning, Judge Valdés dismissed a request from Ríos Montt’s attorneys that the general be excused from attending the hearing in person due to health concerns. The judge gave Ríos Montt 60 minutes to appear in court, and threatened to send police to bring him in.
After a four-hour delay, the former president arrived to the courtroom in an ambulance, brought in by physicians on a stretcher. Later in the afternoon, however, Judge Valdés was forced to step down, ending the proceeding, despite protests from the judge that her dissertation was strictly academic in nature.
— nómada (@nomadagt) January 5, 2015
Digging Up the Past
Almost two years ago, on May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide in an unprecedented ruling in Guatemala. During the 17 months he was in charge of the country, in the midst a long and bloody civil war, the national army killed 1,771 Ixil Mayans and evicted 29,000 others from their homes. Ninety-eight survivors of the massacre testified as witnesses during the trial, and experts and reports from archeological excavations and exhumations were also heard.
However, just 10 days after the ruling, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overruled the 80-year prison sentence, alleging misconduct by the lower court, and ordered a retrial.
The original legal proceedings first began on December 15, 2011, when Ríos Montt voluntarily appeared before Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, demanding to know whether any charges were to be made against him. On January 26, 2012, the former general was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, but was released on a bail while the investigation continued.
For this new trial, prosecutors will present over 800 pieces of evidence, including military plans, reports, expert testimonies, and 120 witnesses among victims and relatives.
“If the genocide charge has been proved once, it will be proved again,” Juan Francisco Soto, director of the Human Rights Legal Action Center (CALDH), told AFP. “The evidence is overwhelming.”
The prosecution believes the former general ordered the extermination of indigenous tribes based on their alleged alliance with Marxist guerrillas during the Civil War.
Disrupting the Peace Agreements
While the Guatamalan court has formally charged Ríos Montt with genocide, scholars from across the political spectrum have expressed doubt that the charge accurately describes what took place.
Carlos Sabino, sociologist and professor at Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala, is certain that the killings happened, but believes it was not genocide because there was “no intention to exterminate a particular race.”
“The accusation is very weak,” he argues. “This is a political trial.”
Joining Sabino is Gustavo Porras, former leader of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor and a peace process negotiator. “You can’t call what happened during the Civil War a genocide,” he said to the BBC.
The country is divided again. The purpose of the 1996 Peace Agreements was to leave the past behind. They included an amnesty law for both sides, and in light of this, it seems illogical to me to try Ríos Montt.
On the other hand, Edwin Canil, a prosecution lawyer and an Ixil Mayan, maintains that there is documentary evidence that demonstrates the Guatemalan government described indigenous tribes as dangerous.
Sabino, however, believes the trial has once again divided the country. “The purpose of the 1996 Peace Agreements was to leave the past behind. They included an amnesty law for both sides and in light of this it seems illogical to me to try Ríos Montt. The victims can be compensated in some other way.”
Porras, who appeared in court as a witness in 2013, told Guatemalan outlet Plaza Pública that the trial will ultimately cause the “political peace to be broken.”
Translation by Daniel Duarte. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.