April 24, 2013
The trial of General Jose Efrain Rios Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez continues to face legal obstacles in its attempt to be the first domestically held trial against a former head of state for genocide and crimes against humanity. The proceedings, which have been suspended, were nearing completion when a lower court ruling made by Judge Carol Patricia Flores attempted to annul all previous trial proceedings. Numerous legal petitions and amparos (similar to an injunction or appeal) have been filed by both the prosecution and defense, seven of which are still pending before Guatemala’s highest court, the Constitutional Court.
A ruling made by the Constitutional Court this week raising grave concerns is the referral of the case back to Judge Flores. There is a growing belief that this will result in Judge Flores returning the proceedings back to the pre-trial phase, in effect requiring that all evidence in the trial be reheard. This would cause more than just a significant delay in a trial crucial to ending impunity in Guatemala, it would also be damaging to the current state of peace, justice and reconciliation in Guatemala. The trial of Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez is essential for Guatemala to move past the conflict and strain between its citizens, which has engulfed the country during and after its thirty-six year civil war. A failure of the trial, especially through tactics of delay or on grounds of procedural technicalities, would fuel the tension between opposing groups of Guatemalans, a tension which is already at a boiling point.
Having spent the previous week observing these trial proceedings in Guatemala City, I was struck by the social context and the always present feeling political and human tension. This tension was magnified through media publications that seemed to either be a boisterous arm on the payroll of political organizations or merely content with breading social divergence through misleading and at times false headlines.
Unfortunately, obtaining access to reliable and accurate information on the current state of the proceedings continues to be problematic. Conflicting information provided by the various courts involved and interested parties makes any prediction of what the future holds for this trial mere speculation. News organizations are providing no alleviation of the confusion. It seems as though information is released by a news organization, only to be later replaced by conflicting information on the same issue. This is fueling the climate of uncertainty surrounding the trial, especially in Guatemala City, where accurate information is vital during a trial consistently influenced by public opinion.
As the proceedings against Rios Montt and Sanchez sit in limbo, it becomes increasingly important that international attention is focused on ensuring the completion of this historic trial. International attention must be a driving force in guaranteeing that Guatemala adheres to its obligations as a democratic state, including providing equal protection of the law and ensuring that justice is carried out without discrimination.
In addition to the legal hurdles discussed above, there also appears to be a silent threat to the integrity of the trial against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez. Throughout the NLG delegation visit to Guatemala, numerous parties with an interest in the matter expressed concern over the applicability of amnesty to any sentence handed down against the former dictator and his military subordinate. If the legal, personal and public struggles endured by the victims, civil society and government figures are in the end made futile by a ruling of amnesty for Rios Montt or Sanchez, that would be the most disappointing and destructive result of all. I urge the international community to draw attention to this monumental trial and signify the extreme importance of accountability and equality of justice in the protection of fundamental human rights.