The abrupt suspension of the genocide trial of former de facto head of Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, raises serious concerns about victims’ access to justice, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 18, 2013, as the four-week trial was nearing its conclusion, Judge Carol Patricia Flores – who had been suspended from the case in 2011 and then reinstated by a judgment of the Constitutional Court – ruled that all actions taken in the case in her absence were null and void, including a trial that had included testimony from more than 100 witnesses for the prosecution.
“For years, the Ríos Montt case and others like it have been delayed by dilatory maneuvers and acts of intimidation against victims and justice officials alike,” said Reed Brody, senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, who monitored the start of the trial. “The surprise decision to suspend the trial raises serious concerns that victims will be forced to repeat the heart-wrenching process of recounting the horrific abuses they suffered at the hands of security forces.”
Prosecutors have said that they will appeal Flores’s decision. On April 19, Yazmin Barrios, the judge overseeing the trial, said that she refused to accept the annulment, but suspended proceedings to give the Constitutional Court time to rule on Flores’s decisionto invalidate the trial. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz said that Flores’s decision is illegal.
Ríos Montt was indicted in January 2012 for genocide and crimes against humanity relating to 15 massacres that resulted in the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil people during his rule, from 1982 to 1983. He and his former chief of military intelligence, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, went on trial in Guatemala City on March 19.
During the four-week trial, dozens of survivors of the massacres have presented harrowing testimony of mass murder, torture, and rape. The prosecution also presented expert witnesses to testify about the military chain of command and links to Ríos Montt.
A United Nations-sponsored Commission on Historical Clarification estimated that as many as 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, from 1960 to 1996, and attributed 93 percent of the human rights abuses it documented to state security forces. It concluded that the military had carried out “acts of genocide.”
“The ruling represents another setback for victims who have been seeking justice for more than three decades,” Brody said. “Given the high stakes for victims, we look to the Constitutional Court to review the order in light of Guatemalan law with complete independence and impartiality.”