Guatemala: will the Ríos Montt trial continue?

The status of the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) remained uncertain as of May 3, with observers disagreeing on the impact of four rulings by the Constitutional Court (CC) that day. The trial--in which Ríos Montt and former intelligence chief Gen. José Rodríguez face charges of causing the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Mayan civilians in the central department of Quiché during Ríos Montt's dictatorship—started on March 19 but was suddenly suspended on April 18 after an appeals court appeared to reinstate the presiding judge from an earlier phase of the case. The trial resumed on April 30, but on May 2 the three trial judges decided to recess until May 7 to allow the defense to prepare.

The Constitutional Court's May 3 rulings mostly concerned complaints filed by Ríos Montt's attorney, Francisco García Gudiel. The current presiding judge--whose name is Yasmín Barrios or Yassmín Barrios, according to different media reports—removed García Gudiel on March 19, the first day of the trial, leaving Ríos Montt without a defense team. The lawyer, who has since been reinstated, claims that the trial needs to start over again from the first day. The Constitutional Court postponed a decision on this claim, which according to the Guatemala City daily Prensa Libre means the trial is suspended until the issue is decided. But attorneys for the Ixil victims and other supporters of the prosecution insisted that the trial would resume as scheduled on May 7.

Many observers think political motives are behind the confusing legal maneuvers. Influential rightwing forces in the country, including current president Otto Pérez Molina, have made it clear that they don't want the genocide trial to reach a verdict. The April 18 suspension came when the three trial judges were close to starting deliberations. They had held 19 sessions and had heard from some 150 witnesses; only six more were scheduled to testify. (Prensa Libre, May 4; La Jornada, Mexico, May 5, from AFP, DPA; Open Society Justice Initiative Ríos Montt trial blog, May 5)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 5.