Skip to main content

Guatemalan court begins to untangle genocide trial standstill

By Miguel Salay and Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 2:06 PM EDT, Wed April 24, 2013
Former Guatemalan dictator General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, listens to a judge in Guatemala City on April 19, 2013.
Former Guatemalan dictator General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, listens to a judge in Guatemala City on April 19, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Guatemala's Constitutional Court orders genocide case to new judge
  • The new judge had previously annulled the proceedings
  • That decision is now being appealed at the Constitutional Court

Guatemala City (CNN) -- A week ago, the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt appeared headed to a historic conclusion. Today, it is at a standstill, the result of procedural missteps that have cast uncertainty over the process.

The country's Constitutional Court on Tuesday began to answer some of the legal questions that are holding up the trial. But the biggest one -- whether the trial proceedings will be annulled -- remains to be clarified.

Guatemala confronts a dark chapter

The court ruled that the case file must be transferred from the judge who was overseeing the trial to another judge who at one time had been on the case but was removed.

The new judge in charge of the case, Carol Patricia Flores, is the same judge who last week ruled that all of the testimony heard in the trial is annulled and that the proceedings should revert to a pretrial phase. The plaintiffs appealed that ruling and are awaiting the decision of the Constitutional Court.

The charges against Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, are considered historic because it is the first time a former head of state has been tried for genocide by the country's own justice system. Rios Montt and his then-intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, are accused of responsibility in the killings of more than 1,700 indigenous Ixil Mayans.

Rios Montt's defense has argued that the leader never ordered the extermination of the Ixil.

For more than three weeks, the trial moved at a fast pace under judge Yassmin Barrios, with dozens of witnesses testifying each day. Dozens of Ixil Mayans told of brutal killings and rapes that they suffered, stories that often left those watching the proceedings with their jaws dropped. Rios Montt's attorneys presented their case, too, saying there is no record anywhere of him ordering the killings of Ixil. The Mayan subgroup was not singled out for its ethnicity, the lawyers said.

The trial was nearing closing arguments when Flores put the brakes on it with her ruling on the invalidity of the testimony.

The three-judge Supreme Court panel overseeing the proceedings had pushed forward with the trial despite unresolved objections to procedures in lower courts.

Flores ruled that because all of the issues at the lower courts had not been settled, the current proceedings were invalid.

Judge nullifies testimony in Guatemala genocide trial

The case is back in Flores' hands, but until the Constitutional Court rules on the appeal, it is not a certainty that the case will revert to its pretrial phase. It is still possible that the trial will pick up where it left off, but with Flores now as judge.

Other related rulings that the Constitutional Court handed down on Tuesday, however, point to how complicated untangling the legal web is.

The court ruled that the trial court had erred by dismissing one of Rios Montt's attorneys during the first day of the trial. The Constitutional Court also said the court erred by ordering lawyers for Rios Montt's co-defendant to defend the former leader, too.

Rios Montt came to power in a coup and led a military junta while Guatemala was in a bloody civil war between the army and leftist guerrillas. The war did not end until 1996, leaving more than 200,000 people dead and 1 million as refugees.

CNN's Mariano Castillo wrote this story and contributed from Atlanta. Journalist Miguel Salay reported from Guatemala City.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The U.S. and several Arab nations carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, intensifying the campaign against the militant group.
updated 8:18 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Her friends were raped and her brother was killed by ISIS, but 15-year-old "Aria" managed to escape.
updated 6:58 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Emma Watson lent her name and her glittery profile to the cause of feminism at the United Nations.
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
From Gadhafi to Ahmadinejad, Bush to Chavez: look back at memorable moments from past UNGA sessions. Richard Roth reports.
updated 3:41 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Just days after NASA's Mars orbiter reached the Red Planet, India's first mission could follow suit and make history.
updated 4:14 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Khorasan, al Qaeda's new branch, seeks new ways to attack America and Europe.
Alibaba officially became the biggest initial public offering of all time, confirming that in the final tally it raised $25 billion.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Do the Chinese really like to mix their Bordeaux with Coca-Cola?
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Cape Town native, Janine Davies is South Africa's first female rider to compete on a national level.
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African super bike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
updated 7:30 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Lilongwe Wildlife Center houses over 200 animal victims and helps rehabilitate them back into the wild.
updated 6:52 AM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT