Justice suspended in Guatemala?
On 19th March a landmark legal case began in Guatemala, the first national trial against a former head of state for the crime of genocide.
José Efrain Ríos Montt, the former head of state in Guatemala between 1982 and 1983, and Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, the former head of intelligence are facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for their role in the death of 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil population.
The significance of this case cannot be overstated. In Guatemala it appeared that finally, after 30 years, justice was prevailing for the survivors of the brutal civil war. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who welcomed the trial also recognised the encouragement the trial would provide for victims of human rights abuses around the world. It felt as though a very clear message was being sent; that Guatemala would no longer accept impunity where gross human rights violations had occurred.
But justice for the Mayan Ixil population is in great danger this week. On 18th April the trial was annulled by Judge Carol Patricia Flores. Flores, who was reinstated to the case recently following her suspension in February 2012 stated that she was acting on an order from the Constitutional Court. The decision came after an adjournment of the case after all six defence lawyers left the court in protest following a refusal from the judges to suspend the case. Flores’ ruling means that the case returns to its pre-trial phase and that all actions taken so far, including the ongoing trial are annulled. The trial has already heard over 100 testimonies.
This is a devastating obstruction to justice for the survivors and their families who have presented their accounts of the brutality they faced during the civil war in Guatemala.
Judge Yazmín Barrios, on behalf of the three judges hearing the trial, made it very clear the day after the announcement that the tribunal believed the annulment of the trial to be illegal (a view also held by Guatemala’s Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz).
Concerns have been raised for those who may have to once again recount the horrors they faced if the trial returns to its pre-trial phase. Amnesty International has highlighted the risk of strengthening impunity if this annulment is not overturned and in a joint statement, four international human rights organisations have strongly supported the continuation of the trial “with due respect for judicial independence”.
It is now for the Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of the annulment to determine whether the trial conducted so far will continue.
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