Constitutional Court annuls sentence against Rios Montt and trial reverts back to April 19

Ten days after a trial court issued its historic verdict convicting Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentencing him to prison for 80 years, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, on Monday 20th May in a 3-2 ruling, annulled the verdict and set the trial back to where it was April 19. This verdict had been the first genocide conviction of a former head of state in a domestic, rather than international, court.

In turning the trial back to the point where it was on April 19, the tribunal had heard all prosecution witnesses, but still awaited the presentation of some of the defense witnesses, closing arguments and, of course, the final verdict and sentence. The Constitutional Court also ordered the official suspension of the trial pending the full resolution of certain legal challenges raised by the defense.

The Constitutional Court ordered that the same trial court – Presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios and her associates Pablo Xitumul and Patricia Bustamante – reconvene to consider the case. It gave the tribunal 24 hours to comply “exactly” with these orders or risk dismissal from their posts and the possibility of civil or criminal sanction. In its judgment, the Constitutional Court did not acknowledge explicitly that the trial had already completed, concluding with a conviction.

The decision stemmed from a constitutional challenge (amparo) raised by Rios Montt’s defense attorneys at the very end of the trial. In response to an earlier challenge, both the Constitutional Court and a Guatemalan appeals court ordered the trial court to remedy a due process violation from the opening day of the trial—the expulsion of Rios Montt’s newly-appointed defense attorney on the middle of that first day, leaving him represented only by the attorney for his co-accused for several hours, until his prior defense attorneys returned to his side on the morning of the second day.

In the challenge at issue in Monday’s Constitutional Court judgment overturning the verdict, Rios Montt asserted that the trial court had not in fact complied with the orders of the appeals court concerning this due process violation, even though the appeals court had recognized the trial court as having fully complied, in a judgment issued by the appeals court just the day before the release of the verdict. (Rios Montt’s challenge was, in effect, a challenge to the appeals court’s finding that the trial court implemented fully the appellate court’s order.)

Media sources reported last week that the Constitutional Court was delayed in issuing its ruling because of division among the judges of the court. That division was evident in the judgment released on Monday. Three of five judges – Hector Perez Aguilera (the President of the Court), Alejandro Maldonado and Roberto Molina – supported the ruling, while Judges Mauricio Chacon and Gloria Patricia Porras filed strong dissenting opinions.

Judge Chacon, in his dissent, affirmed that there was nothing that rose to a level of a constitutional violation that should be dealt with in this extraordinary way, through an amparo; criticized the Constitutional Court’s remedy as disproportionate, particularly as the trial court already issued a sentence; and objected to the actions of Rios Montt’s defense attorney as intentionally obstructionist. He regretted that the Constitutional Court now rewarded these obstructionist efforts with an annulment of the verdict, with the Constitutional Court blaming the trial court judges when their actions “did not invoke anything that suggested a lack of impartiality.” (“…no invoco nada a cerca de la falta de imparcialidad de los integrantes de dicho tribunal.”) Judge Chacon also identified the decision of the Constitutional Court as detrimental to judicial certainty in Guatemala.

Judge Porras, for her part, criticized the majority’s decision for “leaving the victims’ constitutional right of access to justice unprotected.” (“…el Tribunal Constitucional, al resolver sobre la anulación y suspensión de las actuaciones del Tribunal de Sentencia, está dejando desprotegidas a las víctimas de su derecho constitucional de acceso a la justicia.”)

Guatemalan lawyers have described the appropriate mechanisms for a challenge to the verdict as through a “special appeals” process (la apelacion especial, described in Articles 415-22 of the Guatemalan Criminal Procedural Code) available within the ten days following the issuance of the trial court’s final judgment. The ten-day window for Rios Montt’s appeal thus began on Friday. Because of this, some have contested that the Constitutional Court did not have jurisdiction to rule here, prior to the filing of a “special appeal” and the release of a judgment from the appellate court.

However, the Constitutional Court reported various times last week that it was still considering legal challenges from Rios Montt that were pending from when the trial was still in session. Rios Montt’s attorney highlighted that, on the day that the guilty verdict was released, it had 12 interim legal challenges pending; it filed various more subsequent to the announcement of the verdict. Prosecutors and civil parties have consistently asserted that the defense strategy has relied excessively on constitutional challenges (amparos) to delay or obfuscate the trial.

During the past week, with the Constitutional Court asserting that it was on the verge of issuing rulings which could annul the verdict, there was tension in Guatemala related to the trial; forceful and repeated calls from CACIF, Guatemala’s powerful business association, for the verdict to be overturned; and explicit threats made by Rios Montt’s lawyer of national paralysis if the Constitutional Court did not rule in Rios Montt’s favor, as well as bomb threats at the Constitutional Court and other government offices.

Rios Montt had been transported from the trial court to Matamoros Prison after the verdict, on Friday, May 10, to begin to carry out his sentence. However, by Monday, May 13, he had been transported to a military medical facility (el Centro Medico Militar) on account of hypertension and other medical problems. The Constitutional Court judgment means he will likely not return immediately to Matamoros Prison.

For more details on the legal challenges in process see here

Categories: Genocide, Legal, Rios Montt

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