Landmark Ruling against Impunity, Judicial Control Needed in Handling Appeals
May 10, 2013
The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide. Without the persistence and bravery of each participant in this effort – the victims, prosecutors, judges, and civil society organizations – this landmark decision would have been inconceivable.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director

The guilty verdict against Efraín Ríos Montt, former leader of Guatemala, for genocide and crimes against humanity is an unprecedented step toward establishing accountability for atrocities during the country’s brutal civil war.

“The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Without the persistence and bravery of each participant in this effort – the victims, prosecutors, judges, and civil society organizations – this landmark decision would have been inconceivable.”

Rios Montt was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the crime of genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity in a sentence that was handed down on May 10, 2013 by Judge Yassmin Barrios in Guatemala City. In her decision, Barrios said Rios Montt was fully aware of plans to exterminate the indigenous Ixil population carried out by security forces under his command.   

The genocide conviction was the first for a current or former head of state in a national court, Human Rights Watch said.

Following his loss of immunity as a member of Congress in 2012, Ríos Montt was indicted in January 2012 for genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in 15 massacres that resulted in the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil people, among other crimes, during his 17-month rule from 1982 to 1983. He and his former chief of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, went on trial before Guatemala’s Supreme Court on March 19, 2013.

The trial was based on complaints filed by victims in 2000 and 2001. During the trial, nearly 100 witnesses offered harrowing testimony of mass murder, torture, and rape by security forces under Rios Montt’s rule. The prosecution also presented expert witnesses to testify about the military chain of command and links to Ríos Montt.

The proceedings against the defendants were delayed at each stage of the process by defense lawyers, who filed scores of legal appeals, including challenges to judges’ rulings on the admission of evidence and to the judges assigned to the case.

Legal challenges have a crucial role in protecting the rights of defendants, victims and others. However, in at least two cases against Guatemala, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has criticized the “abusive use of the appeal [for legal protection, or amparo] as a delaying practice” to prevent human rights prosecutions. “The right to effective judicial protection … requires that the judges direct the proceeding in such a way as to avoid undue delays and obstructions that lead to impunity, thus frustrating due judicial protection of human rights.”

While the defendant’s right to appeal must be respected, the court should not permit baseless legal challenges aimed at delaying or obstructing the judicial process, Human Rights Watch said.

“Rios Montt’s right to appeal must be safeguarded, but the court also needs to ensure that right is not used to derail the proceedings through unfounded challenges and dilatory tactics whose sole purpose is to shield him from the reach of the law,” Vivanco said.