Legal Stalemate over Guatemala’s Rios Montt Genocide Trial Threatens Victims’ Rights

The Open Society Justice Initiative is deeply concerned about the continuing legal stalemate in Guatemala over the prosecution of the country’s former military leader, José Efrain Rios Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Following the 3-2 decision of Guatemala’s Constitutional Court on May 20 to overturn a guilty verdict in the case, and to order the resumption of the trial at its midpoint, the Justice Initiative is calling on all concerned to complete the process expeditiously. The Justice Initiative called on Guatemala to ensure accountability for grave crimes and the protection of the rights of the victims.

“Guatemala has shown that local justice—with courageous and independent judges—can hold even senior leaders accountable for grave crimes,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative. “Guatemala must not now permit political or other obstacles to prevent an effective prosecution.”

The Justice Initiative notes the two dissenting opinions of Judge Gloria Porras, who argued that the decision to overturn the end of the trial involved “leaving the victims’ constitutional right of access to justice unprotected,” and of Judge Mauro Chacon, who argued that the decision was a disproportionate response. Both dissenting judges affirmed that the appropriate mechanism to remedy any due process violation after the verdict would be an appeal through normal channels. Porras also claimed the majority opinion misstates the facts.

The Constitutional Court is also now considering whether a 1986 amnesty should apply to prevent the continued prosecution of the case, although international law makes clear that amnesties cannot be applied for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and Guatemala’s 1986 amnesty law was explicitly repealed after the end of the armed conflict.

The Justice Initiative also notes with concern that Guatemala’s Minister for Peace argued this month before the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva that Guatemala’s amnesty laws prevent the prosecution of crimes committed during the country’s internal conflict, a view that was challenged by the committee’s experts.

Goldston added: “Guatemala’s obligations under international law are clear. The Inter-American Court has expressly recognized the incompatibility of amnesty laws with war crimes.”

On May 10, 2013, in Guatemala City, a three-judge trial court convicted Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to eighty years in prison. The conviction followed a six-week trial which included the testimony of over 90 witnesses as well as dozens of forensic and other experts, and the presentation of documentary, forensic and other evidence. A week after the verdict, the trial court issued a 718-page judgment laying the foundation for the sentence.

Three days later the Constitutional Court overturned the conviction.

The Justice Initiative international monitoring of the trial is available at www.riosmontt-trial.org, and is done in collaboration with Center for Justice and International Law, International Center for Transitional Justice, National Security Archive, and the Guatemalan investigative journalism website, Plaza Publica.