Guatemala: Will Justice Be Done?

Efraín Ríos Montt, center, at the time of his military coup in Guatemala, March 1982

On May 20, in a 3–2 decision, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala, the country’s highest tribunal, annulled a portion of the trial of the former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt and vacated the trial court verdict, issued ten days earlier, holding that Ríos Montt was guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The decision of the Constitutional Court was based on an alleged violation of due process by the three judges who conducted the trial. That violation involved Ríos Montt’s dismissal of his entire defense team on the first day of the trial on March 19 and the trial court’s brief expulsion of his newly appointed defense counsel, leaving him unrepresented by counsel of his choice for a few hours. This action of the trial court had been addressed in a number of appellate proceedings during the trial and apparently had been held not to damage the prosecution of Ríos Montt. Among other things, the trial court set aside the testimony of witnesses who appeared during the few hours when he had no counsel.

The Constitutional Court had considered this matter previously and had allowed the trial to continue. Its decision on May 20—which is somewhat difficult to comprehend—left in place all the proceedings in the case between the start of the trial on March 19 and April 18, when another appellate court ruled against the claim that due process had been violated. During that period, the prosecution presented its entire case and the defense presented part of its case. The part of the trial that was annulled covered the presentation of a few more defense witnesses, closing arguments, a statement in his own behalf by Ríos Montt, and the verdict and sentence. During this annulled phase of the trial, much of the time was taken up by legal arguments.

As this article goes to press, it is difficult to predict whether the case will move forward, or whether it will be abandoned. What has happened appears to be a setback for the cause of justice in Guatemala, particularly because the Constitutional Court’s decision was handed down against a background of intense lobbying, especially by CACIF, the country’s leading business association, to have the verdict overturned. On the other hand, the action of the Constitutional Court does not do much, if anything, to rehabilitate the reputation of Ríos Montt. It seems likely that he will be remembered principally as the person most responsible for the crimes specified in the verdict that was set aside.

Between 1990 and 2009 there were some sixty-seven prosecutions of heads of state or heads of government for human rights abuses or corruption, or both, a far greater number than ever before.1 Yet the trial of the eighty-six-year-old Ríos Montt, who served as president of Guatemala from…

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