Guatemala: thousands protest reversal of dictator's conviction

Thousands of Guatemalans marched in Guatemala City on May 24 to protest a decision four days earlier by the Constitutional Court (CC) overturning the historic May 10 conviction of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) for genocide against the Ixil Mayans in El Quiché department. Organizers said 6,000 people participated in the march, which passed by the offices of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF)—whose leaders had called for the reversal of the ex-dictator's conviction—and ended with a sit-in outside the Constitutional Court. Protesters denounced the judges as "promoters of impunity."

There were demonstrations the same day in Argentina, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru to protest the court's ruling. In Tegucigalpa, dozens of Honduran women protested outside the Guatemalan embassy chanting: "Ríos Montt, fascist, you're the terrorist" and "No forgetting, no pardon, Ríos Montt to the prison." (Siglo 21, Guatemala City, May 24, from EFE; Prensa Libre, Guatemala City, May 24)

The Constitutional Court ruled in a 3-2 decision the night of May 20 that there were judicial aberrations in Ríos Montt's trial and that it needed to be retried from where it was on Apr. 19, one month after it began. The ruling in effect threw out Ríos Montt's conviction and an 80-year prison sentence the trial court had imposed; the decision also nullified the acquittal of a codefendant, former intelligence chief José Rodríguez. It was unclear from the ruling whether the trial would now restart with the original three trial judges, or what would happen to appeals Ríos Montt's attorneys had filed.

Critics noted that the Constitutional Court focused on the trial judges' exclusion of Ríos Montt's attorney for a few hours on the first day of the trial; an appeals court had ruled that the trial judges later rectified that error. One of the two dissenting judges on the Constitutional Court, Mauricio Chacón, wrote that the trial judges' actions "did not invoke anything that suggested a lack of impartiality." The other dissenting judge, Gloria Patricia Porras, criticized the majority decision for "leaving the victims' constitutional right of access to justice unprotected." (La Jornada, Mexico, May 21, from DPA, AFP, Prensa Latina, Notimex; Open Society Justice Initiative Ríos Montt trial blog, May 21)

On May 24 former president Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) was suddenly extradited to New York, where he faces federal charges of conspiring to launder $70 million of Guatemalan funds through US banks. Elected president as a candidate of Ríos Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), Portillo was charged with embezzlement in 2004 and fled to Mexico. He was extradited back to Guatemala in 2008 but was acquitted by a Guatemala court in 2011. However, the US Justice Department filed its own charges against him in 2010.

The Constitutional Court approved Portillo's extradition to the US in 2011 but no action was taken until now, leading people to question the timing of his removal to New York. "The decision to extradite Portillo, though welcome, has to be seen as an attempt to divert international attention away from the Constitutional Court's overturning of the Ríos Montt verdict," Haverford College Guatemala expert Anita Isaacs told the New York Times. She said that unlike the ex-dictator, Portillo had few friends among the ruling elite. Sending him to the US "is a very small price to pay" for the country's rulers, Isaacs said. (Prensa Libre, May 24; NYT, May 25)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 26.

Guatemala ex-president pleads not guilty in US

Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York May 28. He is charged with having laundered more than $70 million through US banks during his four years as president. Portillo was extradited to the US after being acquitted in Guatemala. Portillo has always claimed innocence and blames political extremists for what he calls false accusations. If convicted, Portillo faces up to 20 years in prison.

In 2011 the criminal charges of embezzlement against Portillo were thrown out by the lower Guatemalan court, which found that prosecutors had failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that Portillo was personally involved in the embezzlement of Guatemala's Ministry of Defense funds. The extradition was approved in March 2010.

From Jurist, May 29. Used with permission.