Guatemala's top court annuls Rios Montt genocide conviction
By Mike McDonald
May 21, 2013
(Reuters) - Guatemala's highest court on Monday overturned a genocide conviction against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt and reset his trial back to when a dispute broke out a month ago over who should hear the case.
Rios Montt, 86, was found guilty on May 10 of overseeing the killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
However, in a ruling on Monday, the country's Constitutional Court ordered that all the proceedings be voided going back to April 19, when one of the presiding judges suspended the trial because of a dispute with another judge over who should hear it.
It was unclear when the trial might restart.
Rios Montt's conviction was hailed as a landmark for justice in the Central American nation, where as many as 250,000 people were killed in a bloody civil war lasting from 1960 to 1996.
When Rios Montt was in power, his government launched a fierce offensive in which soldiers raped, tortured and killed tens of thousands of Maya villagers suspected of helping Marxist rebels. Thousands more were forced into exile or had to join paramilitary forces fighting the insurgents.
After he was sentenced, a court ordered the government to apologize for atrocities committed against indigenous people.
Ana Caba, an ethnic Ixil who survived the civil war after fleeing her home, was stunned by the Constitutional Court's decision.
"I'm distressed," she told Reuters. "I don't know what's happening. That's how this country is. The powerful people do what they want and we poor and indigenous are devalued. We don't get justice. Justice means nothing for us."
At the time the row broke out between the judges, a number of appeals were lodged with the Constitutional Court over alleged irregularities in the handling of the case.
One related to Francisco Garcia, one of Rios Montt's defense lawyers, who had just won an appeal to be readmitted to the case. Garcia was thrown out when the trial began for repeatedly trying to have two of the three presiding judges recused.
When Garcia was reinstated, he tried to recuse the judges again, but they rejected his bid and proceeded with the case.
The Constitutional Court said the judges should have suspended the trial until the recusal attempt had been officially resolved. A spokesman for the court could not say how the recusal bid needed to be formally settled.
Diana Cameros, a psychologist who attended the Rios Montt trial, attacked the Constitutional Court over its ruling.
"It's absurd," she told Reuters. "It said in a previous ruling that the process couldn't be wound back to stages that had already concluded, and now it's saying something that contradicts what they said before."
The court said it had given the judges who sentenced Rios Montt 24 hours to comply with its order.
After spending a couple of nights in prison, Rios Montt was transferred to a hospital last week for treatment for respiratory and prostate problems.
He came to power in a bloodless coup on March 23, 1982, and ruled for 17 months during one of the most brutal phases of the conflict until he was toppled in August 1983. He has repeatedly denied the charges against him.v
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan supported Rios Montt's government and said in late 1982 that the dictator was getting a "bum rap" from rights groups for his military campaign against left-wing guerrillas during the Cold War.
Reagan also once called Rios Montt "a man of great personal integrity."
The retired general returned to politics after his fall from power and later unsuccessfully ran for president. For years, he avoided prosecution because he had immunity as a congressman. That ended when he left Congress in 2012.
Until August 2011, when four Guatemalan soldiers received 6,060-year prison sentences for mass killings in the northern village of Dos Erres in 1982, no convictions had been handed down for massacres carried out during the war.
I am happy that Guatemala, a beautiful place with wonderful people, has been able to bring a genocidal dictator to justice.
Ex-dictator convicted of genocide in Guatemala
By SONIA PEREZ
May 10, 2013
GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A Guatemalan court convicted former dictator Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity on Friday, sentencing him to 80 years in prison, the first such sentence ever handed down against a former Latin American leader.
It was the state's first official acknowledgment that genocide occurred during the bloody, 36-year civil war, something the current president, retired Gen. Otto Perez Molina, has denied.
"He knew about everything that was going on and he did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it from being carried out," said Presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios. "Rios Montt is guilty of genocide."
The 86-year-old former general laughed, talked to his lawyers and listened to the procedures through headphones. When the guilty verdict was announced, the crowded courtroom erupted in cheers. Some women who lost relatives in the massacres wept.
"Judge, Judge! Restore order!" Rios Montt shouted as cameramen and photographers swarmed him after the verdict was announced.
A three-judge tribunal issued the verdict after the nearly two-month trial in which dozens of victims testified about mass rapes and the killings of women and children and other atrocities...
Profile: Guatemala's Efrain Rios Montt
Efrain Rios Montt, file pic from 2013 Efrain Rios Montt came to power through a coup d'etat in 1982
10 May 2013
Guatemala's former military leader Efrain Rios Montt is one of the central American nation's most controversial figures, who briefly seized power during one of the bloodiest periods of the country's brutal 36-year civil war.
On 10 May 2013, he was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Born in Huehuetenango in 1926, Efrain Rios Montt joined the army and was a young officer when President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was deposed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1954.
He rose through the ranks to become a brigadier general and the army's chief of staff in 1970 during the military regime of President General Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio.
He came to power through a coup in March 1982 in the middle of Guatemala's bloody war, in which Marxist rebels battled the military regime.
Civilians - the vast majority of them indigenous Mayans - were caught in the crossfire, and an estimated 200,000 died before a truce was reached in 1996, making the conflict one of Latin America's most violent wars.
Although Gen Rioss Montt was overthrown by his Defence Minister Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores in August 1983, he is considered to have had a major impact on the conflict through the so-called Guns and Beans campaign.
The rebels were offered terms through which they would be fed if they supported the regime, but crushed if they continued fighting.
Prosecutors say that during his 17 months in power, Gen Rios Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Gen Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, ordered the deaths of more than 1,700 members of the Ixil Maya ethnic group, whom they suspected were supporting the rebels.
In 2012, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom apologised to the relatives of the victims of a December 1982 massacre in which Guatemalan soldiers killed more than 200 people in the village of Dos Erres, saying it was a stain on Guatemala's history.
'Guatemala was in ruins'
General Rios Montt returned to the political limelight when he ran for president in 2003, despite a constitutional rule that no-one who had overthrown a government could stand for the presidency.
During the campaign, he was accused of orchestrating a violent protest by his supporters against the constitutional ruling.
A journalist died of a heart attack while running away from protesters in what became known as Black Thursday in Guatemala City.
But Gen Rios Montt was cleared of manslaughter charges in 2006, with prosecutors citing a lack of evidence.
He stood for president again in 2006 but was defeated in an election was marred by violence, with more than 22 people connected with political parties killed in the run-up to the vote.
The general returned to public office in 2007 as a member of Congress, which secured him immunity from prosecution over the war crimes allegations.
Efrain Rios Montt addresses the court in Guatemala City. 9 May 2013 Gen Rios Montt gave an impassioned hour-long defence of himself towards the end of his trial
But that immunity expired with the end of his term in office in January 2012, and within two weeks of leaving office he was summoned to court and formally charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.
Prosecutors called for 75-year sentences to be given to both Gen Rios Montt and his former spy chief.
Although the case was beset with delays, legal loopholes and a temporary suspension, the pre-trial hearing was held in January 2013.
The three-judge tribunal reached its verdict on 10 May, declaring him guilty and sentencing him to 80 years in prison.
Gen Rios Montt did not testify during the court proceedings, but broke his silence to give an impassioned hour-long defence before the three judges retired to consider their verdicts.