Guatemalan court begins to untangle genocide trial standstill

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

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.