|Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. (Johan Ordonez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)|
By Elisabeth Malkin
The New York Times, May 21, 2013
"A day after Guatemala's highest court threw out the genocide verdict against a former dictator, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, lawyers on both sides of the case said Tuesday that his entire trial would probably have to be repeated. In a contentious 3-2 decision, the Constitutional Court on Monday ordered that the clock on the trial be turned back to April 19, part of an awkward remedy to resolve what it decided was a procedural irregularity. By that point in the trial, the prosecution had presented a month of chilling testimony from survivors of Army massacres carried out 30 years ago during one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala's long civil war. Experts in the trial described how the Army had marched into remote hamlets in the Maya Ixil region in search of leftist guerrillas during General Ríos Montt's 17-month rule in 1982 and 1983. Soldiers killed all those who could not flee, burning down houses, killing livestock and destroying crops. The court's split decision to rewind the trial to April 19 means that everything that came after that point -- including closing statements, the genocide conviction and the general's 80-year prison sentence -- is invalid. Rather than simply restarting the case at that juncture, however, lawyers on both sides said that it would probably have to go before a new panel of judges -- one that had not already convicted the general. And because those new judges would need to rule on the evidence themselves, the trial would probably need to start over from the beginning, possibly dragging out the case against the 86-year-old general for months, if not longer.
'Another tribunal would have to start over again,' said Héctor Reyes, a lawyer from the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights who represented the Maya Ixil victims. Calling the constitutional court's ruling 'eminently illegal,' he said that the repeated delays caused by endless appeals 'are part of the impunity in Guatemala.' Moisés Galindo, part of the defense team representing General Ríos Montt, agreed that a new trial would probably be necessary. 'For all practical effects, the Constitutional Court is saying the debate has to begin again in front of new judges,' he said. The Constitutional Court's decision followed intense pressure from business groups and military veterans to overturn the verdict. Even as the police escorted General Ríos Montt from the court to a military prison after his conviction on May 10, there was uncertainty over whether it would stand. Many observers saw a political motive behind the ruling to overturn the outcome. Business groups and military veterans feared that the verdict could unleash a wave of trials, said Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, a Guatemalan sociologist at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico. The government was also concerned when a trial witness mentioned the name of the current president, Otto Pérez Molina, a former general who served in the Ixil region. 'The complex of interests is very powerful and it won't stand with its arms crossed in the face of the verdict,' Professor Figueroa said. [...]"