BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The decision by Guatemala’s top court to overturn the genocide conviction against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt is a heavy blow to war victims seeking justice for human rights abuses and a setback for the country’s fragile justice system, rights groups said.
The ruling on Monday came 10 days after a Guatemalan court convicted 86-year-old Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the killings by state security forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group during his rule from 1982 to 1983.
“It’s a slap in the face for the victims and Guatemala. It’s about people trying to get justice and hold those responsible for human rights abuses committed during the civil war. This decision just generates even more impunity. As human rights defenders we are very upset. We feel sad and frustrated,” said Nery Rodenas, head of the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala (ODHAG).
“This ruling shouldn’t have happened. It’s illegal and it makes Guatemala’s justice system even more fragile in a country that’s known for its instability,” Rodenas, a lawyer, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Guatemala City.
A VICTORY NO MORE?
Rios Montt's conviction had been hailed as a victory for war victims and a justice system in a country still recovering from the legacy of a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, and during which around 200,000 people died and 45,000 disappeared.
A United Nations-backed Truth Commission set up under the 1996 peace accords concluded that the military was responsible for more than 85 percent of human rights violations during the war.
The sentence against Rios Montt marked the first time any country in the world had ruled a former head of state guilty of genocide in its own national court, as opposed to an international court.
Rios Montt's lawyers filed an appeal following the conviction and he spent several days in prison before he was transferred for medical treatment at a military hospital, where he remains.
During the weeks-long trial, women gave harrowing testimony about being gang raped by soldiers, while mothers described watching their sons being killed and their homes torched by soldiers.
“It’s quite a devastating blow for the victims of the serious human rights violations committed during the conflict. Over 100 witnesses who gave their testimony in court have been told this conviction is now no more,” Sebastian Elgueta, Amnesty International’s researcher on Guatemala, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Guatemala’s constitutional court ruled that all the proceedings be reset back to April 19, when a dispute broke out over who should hear the case. That means what happened in the trial court between April 19 and May 10, the day the guilty verdict was handed down, has now been overturned.
All the testimonies, expert and witness statements heard between those dates will have to be presented again, as will the closing arguments from both sides, Amnesty’s Elgueta explained.
However, the court’s decision to annul the conviction does not signal the end of the legal battle or the historic trial.
"There’s some hope that the trial will continue, but it raises questions as to how it can proceed and how the trial court can hit the reset button to get back to a point in mid-April. It’s not clear at this stage what will happen,” said Elgueta.