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Guatemala high court apparently restarts ex-dictator's trial

April 25, 2013|By Richard Fausset
  • The names of hundreds of people who went missing during Guatemala's civil war were placed in front of the high court building this week in Guatemala City as part of a demand to resume the genocide trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
The names of hundreds of people who went missing during Guatemala's… (Saul Martinez / European…)

MEXICO CITY -- Guatemala’s highest court issued a ruling late Thursday that appears to have broken the complicated legal logjam in the case of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who is facing genocide charges in the slaughter of ethnic Maya during the country’s civil war.

The decision by the Constitutional Court appears to avert the possibility that prosecutors might have to start the trial from scratch, re-creating a case in which more than 100 witnesses have already given testimony, including graphic and emotionally wrenching details of the slaughter of men, women and children.

The trial of Rios Montt, an 86-year-old former army general who ruled the country from 1982 to 1983, is the highest-profile criminal case in modern Guatemalan history. The possibility that it would have to be rebooted was raised a week ago when, just before closing arguments, a judge who had presided over the case many months earlier surprisingly ordered that the trial be annulled, based on a technicality.

With Thursday's ruling, though, it appears  that prosecutors may pick up where they left off -- but Jo-Marie Burt, director of the Latin American Studies Program at George Mason University, warned that more surprises could be in store.  She noted that the high court must still rule on a number of other complex legal petitions that could affect the case in myriad ways.

“It’s not that it’s completely over,” Burt said.

The high court’s ruling Thursday ordered the judge who annulled the case, Patricia Flores, to hear some evidence that had been in dispute. But it ordered Flores to then return the case file to the trial court where, barring any further developments, a three-judge panel will eventually issue a ruling.

Rios Montt and his former military intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, are facing unprecedented charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for allegedly sanctioning the execution of 1,770 Ixil Maya Indians and the destruction of numerous highland villages.

The fact that the former strongman was even brought to trial was viewed as a victory by international human rights groups.

Many conservative Guatemalans contend that Rios Montt is a hero who did what he had to do to save the country from the scourge of communism.


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